Two stories this week together capture the present difficulties and future promise of Latino politics: First, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to President Obama’s unilateral steps towards deportation relief, and second, a new Pew report on the Latino electorate, which is young and growing to record-high numbers. At first, this may sound like the passing of an old era and the rise of a new one, but the connection is slightly more complicated.
For the last several years, political writers have been predicting the ascendance of Latinos as a major political force. There are 35 million Latinos in the United States, according to Pew, and the median age is 19; between the last presidential election and the coming one, more than three million will have become eligible to vote.
And yet they’re not voting—at least not in large numbers. In 2012, fewer than half of all eligible Hispanic voters turned out, compared to 64 percent of white voters and two-thirds of black voters. Among millennial Latinos in 2012, the numbers were even lower: about 38 percent voted, far fewer than white and black millennials. Despite what many conservatives like to insist, Latinos hold liberal attitudes, and they consistently vote for Democrats. Their low turnout numbers haven’t kept Democrats from winning the last two presidential elections, but the party could have used their help in a number of down-ballot races, especially in midterm years. (It doesn’t help that their geographical concentration leaves only small proportions in many competitive states, allowing several members of Congress to resist their demands with little electoral consequence.) This as-yet unrealized electoral clout is evidenced by the stymied progress of immigration reform—which could come back to haunt Republicans, but hasn’t just yet.
Of course, the hope and expectation of liberal observers is that it soon will. And not only exasperation with Congress, but the savvy application of pressure by Latino allies, explains Obama’s decision to shield from deportation about five million undocumented immigrants whose children are citizens or legal residents. The fate of that decision now rests with the Supreme Court. Although the executive branch has a well-established right to set priorities when enforcing immigration law, the 26 states challenging Obama’s program allege that it goes far beyond that. “Executive agencies,” they argue, “are not entitled to rewrite immigration laws.”
Without hazarding any predictions about what the Court will do, I’d simply note that at least some of its members have, in the past, evinced a bizarre faith that this Congress will address national crises through prompt and effective legislation. If that were true, then Obama wouldn’t have been pushed to this point to begin with. If his relief program falls at the hands of the Court, it could prove a galvanizing moment for young, voting-eligible Latinos—some of whom will have parents, or will have friends with parents, who are affected. This disproportionately young, relatively liberal population is coming of political age at a time when conservatism has little to offer Latinos. A reversal at the Court could help cement attitudes for a generation, and if it also motivates young Latinos to participate, the conservative attorneys general bringing this case will have won a costly victory.