All was quiet inside Church Street’s Ecuadorian consulate Wednesday, but for New Haven County’s estimated 265,000 Hispanics, it was far from business as usual. Latino newspapers piled high next to the consulate’s information desk told the story of a movement under way on New Haven streets: “7.500 latinos votaron por primera vez en Connecticut” — read the front page of La Voz Hispana in striking yellow typeface — “7,500 Latinos vote for the first time in Connecticut.”
New Haven Latinos comprise a demographic that has increased by 35 percent in the past decade, according to New Haven nonprofit DataHaven. The explosive growth in the local Latino electorate reflects a countrywide phenomenon that has dominated national headlines since the presidential election, when Hispanics, 10 percent of the electorate for the first time, voted for President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by a 71–29 margin, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
In the wake of last week’s election — which saw Obama re-elected and Democrats riding to larger numbers in the Senate and House — several prominent Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner and FOX News host Sean Hannity, called for the party to support comprehensive immigration reform. But on Wednesday, Romney reportedly told top donors that the reason he lost against Obama was due to Obama giving “gifts” to constituencies like Hispanics, leading to renewed concerns that Latino voters would continue to flock to Democrats.
But Republicans responded to the flash fire of media criticism following Election Day by claiming that the electoral process is about “fighting for 100 percent of the votes,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Los Angeles Times.
“Our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream, period,” Jindal said.
Buoying the president into his second term, Latinos rated immigration reform a top priority next to the economy, sparking a national conversation about a comprehensive overhaul of current immigration policies and forcing Republicans to re-evaluate their stance, according to a report last week by Latino Vote 2012. Because the Obama administration has presided over a record number of deportations in spite of his pro-amnesty image, Latinos are “frustrated” and “expecting more this time,” said John Lugo, organizer for Unidad Latina en Acción, a local immigrant rights advocacy group.
“Tensions are heating up,” said Diana Enriquez ’13, moderator of MEChA de Yale, a student organization that promotes Latino political activism on campus. “It isn’t new that our votes are important and that politicians need to court our interests.”
Based on turnout at local voter registration events, New Haven Latinos overwhelmingly identify as Democrats because local party officials seek to represent their interests, said Ana Maria Rivera of Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven-based nonprofit that serves the local Latino community. City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said New Haven is indeed welcoming to all residents and “proud of its position on the forefront of municipal immigration policies.” She cited the Elm City Resident Card, which provides all residents with a tool to access basic public amenities regardless of immigration status, as an example of the city’s inclusiveness.
State Democrats also claim to support legislation that represents their Latino constituency. Roy Occhiogrosso, senior advisor to Gov. Dannel Malloy, said Malloy has been an outspoken critic of the Secure Communities program — under which nonviolent undocumented immigrants have been detained and deported — and proposed Connecticut’s version of the DREAM Act, which provides a path to legalization for undocumented minors who seek college education or military service.
Rep. Rosa DeLaura of Connecticut’s 3rd District said she hopes to give each member of her Hispanic constituency good jobs, health care and education. She has voted in favor of extending immigrant residency rules and was rated 0 percent by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, indicating a record of voting to loosen immigration regulations.
“Throwing up a wall and being exclusive [to Latino immigrants] undermines the basic principles on which this country is founded,” Occhiogrosso said.
In contrast to the policies of state Democrats, Republican rhetoric alienates Latinos, projecting a hostile image on undocumented immigrants and appearing to ignore the “economically disadvantaged,” Lugo said. Latino conservatives recommend that Republicans amend their platform to support pro-family immigration reform and engage Latinos “consistently,” said executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles Alfonso Aguilar, instead of only paying attention to Latinos around Election Day.
Hispanics nevertheless recognize Obama’s failure to address immigration reform. A 2011 Pew Hispanic Center poll found that Latinos disapproved of the president’s handling of deportations by a 2-to-1 margin, which undocumented activist Juan Escalante said left “a very sour taste for Hispanics heading to the polls.”
But the president has taken steps toward comprehensive reform. Enriquez lauded Obama’s 2010 support of the Latino community in the face of Arizona’s SB 1070, which allowed law enforcement officials to request documentation of citizenship from anyone they deemed suspicious of residing in the country illegally.
Juan Gomez — who garnered national media attention in 2010 as a Georgetown University undergraduate and undocumented Colombian immigrant — said he has benefited from Obama’s Deferred Action program introduced earlier this year, which granted him a two-year work permit and saved him temporarily from the fate of deportation. He now works for a financial consulting firm in Manhattan, but he cannot leave and then return to the country — not even to visit Colombia to see his parents, who were deported when he was 18. Escalante calls Deferred Action a “small olive branch” that could lead to comprehensive reform.
But the Latino community cannot arrive at a consensus regarding immigration reform legislation. Enriquez said that immigration reform is not supported by a “Latino-wide solidarity movement” because voters who are distanced from the issue may be worried about issues that affect their daily lives, such as the economy. Yet Rivera said even third-generation Hispanic immigrants still view immigration reform as a priority.
“We are all affected by it, whether or not you’re documented,” Rivera said. “Everyone has a friend or relative impacted by the issue.”
Junta for Progressive Action estimates between 10,000 and 15,000 undocumented Latino immigrants reside in New Haven.