Census day was a big day at the office of the National Council of La Raza, not only because it was the final day of the drive to reduce the chronic undercount of Hispanic residents, but because it marked a time when Latinos in the United States could obtain the latest measure of their growing political power.
The largest and fastest-growing minority group finds itself in an anomalous position this year. In some respects, its stature has never been higher, with the Supreme Court appointment of Sonia Sotomayor signaling that one more historic barrier has fallen to the talent and ambition of the Spanish-speaking community.
But as Janet Murguia, the veteran political organizer and former Clinton White House aide who is president of La Raza reminded me, “As long as the immigration issue is unresolved, we feel under threat.”
The mixed signals that Hispanics receive from the larger community, ranging from the accolades for the first Hispanic woman on the high court to the threatening nativist rhetoric of Tom Tancredo at the first tea party convention, have produced an almost schizophrenic reaction among Latino constituencies and leaders.
While celebrating the gains they have recorded on such vital issues as health care, children’s welfare and education from their alliance with Barack Obama, they fret about the backlash they see on illegal immigration and the growing gulf between their own community and most Republican officeholders.
It is a distinctly uncomfortable mood, despite the strong sense they share of imminent and growing political power.
That power ultimately rests on their numbers, which is why the census has been so much on the minds of Latino leaders like Murguia and Eric Rodriguez, a La Raza vice president. The same day, Thursday, that I interviewed them the Pew Hispanic Center released a poll of Latino voters showing solid majorities of both native and foreign-born Hispanics believe the census results will benefit their community.
This is important because census officials have struggled for years – and especially this year – to overcome Latinos’ fear of giving full information about themselves to the government enumerators. Assurances that the responses will remain confidential and not be turned over to immigration authorities or other potentially threatening officials are met with skepticism. By staying uncounted, Hispanics reduce the flow of government funds to their cities and states, and even deny themselves representation in Congress and the legislatures.
Overcoming those fears has been a major focus for La Raza and other Hispanic civic and advocacy groups, and for the Census Bureau itself. Without knowing the exact numbers, it is clear that Latinos’ role and influence can only expand as the new census results are tallied.
In a recent article, the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein noted that between 1993, the first year of the Clinton administration, and now, the number of House districts where minorities made up at least 30 percent of the population nearly doubled, going from 109 to 205 – almost half the House of Representatives.
Most of that increase was attributable to Hispanics, because the African-American population is growing much more slowly. As Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, told Brownstein, “If you are in a district that is not accustomed to seeing a lot of diversity, the rule now is that you’re going to see it. And you can’t ignore it. That is the face of America tomorrow.”
According to the latest Census Bureau forecasts, Texas will be the main winner of new House seats, with four new districts. Single seat gains are forecast for Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. How many of those districts will be controlled or influenced by Hispanics will depend on who draws the lines and how they are constructed. But most of those states, and especially Texas, have seen big Hispanic population growth.
The changes we have seen so far – and the controversies they have spawned – are likely to be overwhelmed by those yet to come.
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