Immigrants the New Face of ‘Real America'

In an election season filled with hyperbole and lies, the truest moments came just in time for next week’s election.

The candor came from Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and two GOP House members from Minnesota and North Carolina, who rallied for votes by suggesting that only some parts of the United States — presumably those that support them — are the “real America.”

Their spontaneity, which they later apologized for in the face of sliding support, revealed a state of denial in the changing American electorate. The truth is, the real America — the whole America — will be seen on Election Day, when the millions of votes by “new Americans” are counted.

New Americans, the fastest-growing voting bloc, are naturalized immigrants, mostly Hispanic, and the U.S.-born children of immigrants since 1965, according to a recent report by the Immigration Policy Center.

If political pollsters, campaign strategists, and civil rights and immigrants’ advocates are correct, these newer citizens will shatter voting records next week.

Their increasing numbers were widely anticipated, but their high rate of growth “has been utterly unprecedented,” observed Rob Paral, who studied the shifting electorate for the immigration center.

While the national voter registration rate rose 11.3 percent from 1996 to 2004, the new American sign-up rate jumped almost 60 percent, according to Paral. And they vote, too. In 2006, more than 7.3 million new Americans — two-thirds of those registered — cast ballots.

This year, more than a half-million new voters were registered by a collection of Hispanic and Asian groups and Spanish-language media. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain, also spent millions on advertising and ground operations to drive up registration and turnout.

Like all voters, this group is anxious about the economic recession, rising health care costs and failing education systems.

But new Americans will march to the polls in unprecedented numbers for two more reasons: They feel the intense heat generated by conservatives in the immigration debate, and they are Americans who have the right to vote.

America, the nation of immigrants, “is alive and well,” said Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center. “They are naturalizing in record numbers, they swear allegiance to the United States, are registering to vote and are expected to turn out in an unprecedented force.”

How GOP wrangling over who is a “real” American plays among this group is unclear, but narrowing the definition could backfire.

“I’m not sure what they mean by ‘real Americans,’ but I am sure that new Americans — naturalized immigrants plus their U.S.-born kids — are acting very American,” Kelley said. “What’s more American than making America your own plus participating in her great democracy?”

Though Republicans’ sharp-tongued immigration stance has turned off these voters, Democrats should not take them for granted, Kelley warned. The Electoral College battle is often won by slim margins in many states, and these new Americans could be this year’s “new and weighty” voting bloc, she said.

As new voters, they do not have long-standing party loyalties and are the “quintessential swing electorate,” added Efrain Escobedo, of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund.

And they will be voting everywhere.

The swelling numbers of new voters, as well as Latinos and Asian-Americans, are no longer concentrated in traditional immigrant states such as Florida, New York and those along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their populations have expanded to states like North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada and Washington.

They are expected to be a force in presidential battleground states as well as in congressional contests in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

In Indiana, for example, few could have imagined until a few weeks ago that a Spanish-language radio station would be handing out pan de dulce at a get-out-the-vote rally for Hispanics. Yes, in crimson-red Indiana.

In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole is fighting for political survival. GOP Rep. Robin Hayes also got into trouble after saying at a McCain rally that “liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.”

Campaign cash poured in for House Democratic candidate Elwyn Tinklenberg in Minnesota when Republican incumbent Michele Bachmann questioned Obama’s patriotism and urged the news media to probe whether members of Congress are “pro-America” or “anti-America.”

Arizona, ground zero for the nation’s fiery immigration debate, is expected to back McCain, its home-state senator. But an open question is whether he will get the 70 percent Latino support that he received in his last reelection. McCain’s standing with Hispanics has been hurt by his party’s label and his own switch to an “enforcement first” immigration stance.

In California, Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans are being urged by voting rights activists to oppose a state proposition that would set up a complex system for redrawing state and federal political boundaries after the 2010 Census.

One state defying this year’s voting trends, despite its large Latino population, is Texas. But there, more Hispanics are multigenerational, and the state’s rate of new Americans is lower than in California, New Jersey and New York — and even Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Though Texas will likely remain Republican in statewide balloting this year, Republican Sen. John Cornyn is watching his back against Democrat Rick Noriega, who had two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in recent polling. “Take this as certainly the coming-out party of 2008,” said NALEO’s Escobedo.

The seismic shift in the electorate will only continue, said Paral, who estimated that half of California’s teenagers who will be eligible to vote in 2012 have an immigrant parent.

The challenge for future candidates is to figure out how to incorporate this emerging voting bloc into the political mainstream, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.

“If the parties don’t adapt to that, they are going to be on the wrong side of history,” Sharry said.

Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.

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