January 13, 2011 | Miami Herald | Original Article

Don't ignore growing voice

Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States. According to census figures, Latino voters are three times more prevalent in states that will gain congressional seats than in those that will lose them.

In the past decade, the American population grew by 9 percent, about half of that growth being attributed to Hispanics. Out of 48.4 million Latinos, more than 20 million are eligible voters. Even more, however, are not: 15.5 million are U.S. citizens but too young to vote, and nearly 13 million of all ages are not naturalized.

Since 2000, six million Hispanics entered the ranks of potential voters, more than four out of five being American-born who turned 18. With the exception of Cuban Americans, Latinos have higher birthrates than the American population as a whole. The Hispanic electorate will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Even in states that are losing House seats, Latino growth may have cut these losses short.

Politicians who don't give the Latino electorate its due attention -- as Democrat Alex Sink did not in the Florida gubernatorial election last November -- or who can't or won't tackle immigration issues fairly -- as is the case with too many congressional Republicans -- sooner or later pay the consequences.

In 2010, Hispanic Republican candidates had unprecedented success at the polls. Only Florida has a history of electing center-right Latinos (mostly Cuban Americans) to major political offices. The 112th Congress added four new Republican Latinos, two in Texas and one each in Washington and Idaho. Brian Sandoval and Susana Martínez won the governorships of Nevada and New Mexico, respectively.

The Republican Party has every right to be elated with these results. And yet, Republicans should also worry about the Latino electorate, which still preferred Democrats two to one in 2010. After the November election, Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican strategist in California, said: ``We lost every statewide election because we lost Latino voters. We are now getting larger and larger Latino populations outside the West. And Republicans have to be aware of the cost of harsh rhetoric.''

Most Latinos hear Republican rhetoric against undocumented aliens as a personal affront. Take the Dream Act -- a bipartisan, common-sense effort -- which failed in the lame-duck session of Congress even if majorities in the House and Senate voted for it but died when ``only'' 55 senators nodded Yes, not enough to overcome a filibuster.

In December, Jim DeMint, R-S.C., opposed the Dream Act saying: ``We cannot reward illegal behavior with a path to citizenship, employment, voting rights, education or Social Security benefits.''

Never mind that the act's beneficiaries would be minors (15 and under) brought here illegally by one or both parents. Since when are children held responsible for the sins of their fathers or mothers? Never mind as well that the act requires these potential beneficiaries to be law-abiding and to attend college or serve in the military for at least two years.

The Dream Act would neither issue a blanket amnesty nor be a magnet for foreign youths to enter the United States illegally. To reap the act's benefits, applicants must already be here and meet stringent criteria over a six-year period. If they don't, the Dream Act would offer them nothing.

Tackling immigration wholesale seems unlikely anytime soon. That's another reason why the Dream Act's failure in the lame-duck session was so regrettable. Passing constructive, piecemeal legislation on complex subjects is usually a first step in the right direction.

Instead, many Republicans are raising the specter of abolishing birthright citizenship, which the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended. Their readiness to deny U.S.-born children of undocumented parents the right to be American citizens would do nothing to fix immigration and diminish our democracy, indeed, our heritage of inclusion.

Republicans often say that Hispanics are Republicans, they just don't know it yet. And they won't unless Republicans change their tone and their policy approaches on immigration. In the meantime, by 2015, Latinos will be on the brink of surpassing Anglos as the largest group in Texas. Republicans might then have to work hard to keep Texas in the 2016 presidential election.