Thursday November 29, 2012

It's no wonder, in the wake of the 2012 presidential election, that Hispanics have been a trending topic in just about every analysis. At roughly 50 million people, they are the largest (and fastest growing) demographic in the country, making up 10 percent of the electorate. With 75 percent of Hispanics voting for Obama this election, they awarded the president undeniable leverage in several key battleground states. Now that the ballots have been counted, Democrats and Republicans alike can't stop talking about the Hispanic vote, and they are right to pay attention. Since Latinos are expected to make up 60 percent of the population growth between 2005 and 2050, the ability to sway Latino voters will only become more essential in years to come. So, how did President Obama get Latinos' support at the polls? Simple. His plan for the country was favorable to their interests. Taking a quick look at some of the issues that matter to Latinos elucidates the reasons for their clear choice in this year's election.

One obvious issue, that has perhaps been awarded too much attention in post election analysis, but is nevertheless worth mentioning, is immigration. The popular belief is that a general perceived disrespect of immigrants by Governor Romney motivated Hispanics against him in the election. While this interpretation is not at all inaccurate, it's a bit more complicated than that.


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Besides astronomically beefing up border security, Mitt Romney's main solution to immigration is a card system that connects to a federal database to reveal to employers whether potential employees are documented to work or not. If the workers do not have sufficient documentation, he reasons, those who hire them will receive the same penalties and fines as they would if they didn't pay their taxes. This proposal directly ties into his infamous "self deportation" theory, in which a lack of documentation forces immigrants to move back to their previous country because they cannot find work in the U.S. Many viewed this language as the kiss of death for Romney regarding immigration policy, but it wasn't his only slip up. He referred to any form of amnesty as "troublesome," and was at first rigidly opposed to the DREAM Act, recent legislation allowing immigrants brought here as minors a path to citizenship if they attend university or serve in the military. Romney later softened his opposition on the condition that the bill focus on military service.

President Obama, on the other hand, rather than making illegal immigrants leave the country, advocates requiring them to take the steps to become citizens. He, like Governor Romney, knows it is impossible to round up 11 million people. "Moreover," he said, "it would tear at the very fabric of this nation, because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric." Obama will require that illegal immigrants admit they broke the law, register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. He will punish employers who exploit immigrant labor. His Deferred Action program, which he acknowledges is not an ideal solution but a step toward a larger one, suspends the deportation of eligible youth and provides them work permits so they can stay in the country. Almost 60 percent of Latino voters said this program made them more enthusiastic about Obama. A strategy that proved very effective during his campaign was to direct the focus away from what he has not yet done regarding immigration by attacking the Arizona SB 1070 law instead. Obama's plans make more sense for immigrants and his overall perspective coincides with the shifting demographics of today's America.

Another reason Hispanics opted for Obama over Romney is health care. Health care comes in third on the Pew Research Center's list of top issues for Hispanics this election. One in three Hispanics does not have health insurance, so they are more likely to spend money out of pocket for health care and their costs would only rise with VP candidate Paul Ryan's budget plan. Romney's voucher program would certainly not help millions of uninsured Latinos get insurance. Over a quarter of the Hispanic population does not even have a health care provider. When examining Hispanics' situation with health care, it is easy to see why two thirds of Hispanic voters are supportive of the president's Affordable Care Act. "It's a phenomenal bill as far as minority health is concerned," says Elena Ríos, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. Six million Latinos are expected to gain access to new coverage pathways through Obamacare with 3.1 million gaining access to Medicaid. This is the single biggest jump of any racial or ethnic group. Governor Romney's first course of action would have been to repeal Obamacare. He also wanted to decrease the role of government in Medicare, an idea rejected by three in four Latinos.

Not only are Hispanics in need of attention in the health care system, but they also seem to be getting the worst of our weakened economy -- 54 percent believe the economic downturn has hit Hispanics the hardest; 75 percent say their personal finances are in "only fair" or "poor" shape; and 28 percent are underwater on their mortgage. The median household wealth for Latinos (all assets minus all debt) fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. The Latino unemployment rate in December of 2011 was 11 percent, up from only 6.3 percent in 2007. The poverty rate increased more than any other group: six percentage points between 2006 and 2010. (It is now at 26.6 percent). The housing downturn also negatively affects Hispanics because the Hispanic workforce is highly concentrated in construction and homeownership is a major source of wealth for Latino families.

Latinos are broadly aware of these trends, and yet, oddly, they are more upbeat about the future than any other group, with two thirds expecting their financial situation to improve in the next year. The same number expect their children to eventually enjoy a better standard of living than their own. This optimism can only mean good things for Obama. Though they were struggling during Obama's first term, two thirds of Latinos blame Bush for the economic downturn, and over half of the respondents in a Univision/ABC/Latino Decisions poll from earlier this year supported Obama's vision of a more active role of the federal government in economic recovery.

The election results deliver a message loud and clear to the Republicans: Latinos were listening. They picked a candidate who considered them part of the fabric of America instead of one who viewed them as outsiders. They picked a candidate who would address their health care needs instead of one who blames immigrants for rising health care costs. They picked a candidate who would make sure they got a fair shot instead of cutting vital social programs to finance tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans. If the Republicans hope to come out on top next election, they'll need to reevaluate their game plan. Latinos were listening, and they will be next time, too.

Aurora Phillips is a senior at Brattleboro Union High School. She is a regular contributor to the Opinions page.