AUSTIN, TEXAS — HISPANIC voters are as concerned about the economy and jobs as the rest of the population - possibly more so - says Robert Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute in San Antonio.
While it is not their only concern, SVRI focus group sessions all found jobs and the economy ranked as the most important national issues.
United States census data show the reasons for concern. The unemployment rate for Hispanics is 50 percent higher than for the population as a whole. And the Hispanic poverty rate is twice the national average.
"The economy is on the mind of everyone when we're losing jobs in Chicago," says Miguel Alba, managing editor of Extra, a bilingual newspaper.
That concern makes many Hispanics wary of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed last week by representatives of Canada, the US, and Mexico. NAFTA, which must be ratified by all three legislatures, would phase out trade barriers over a 15-year period.
"Our groups showed almost to the person a negative impact on Hispanics themselves in this country, Mr. Brischetto says.
Because they reside in border states, the California and Texas focus groups felt particularly vulnerable.
A majority said they would only support NAFTA if it included US job retraining and environmental protection on both sides of the border.
Their ambivalence about NAFTA is shared in Chicago, where one-fifth of the population is Hispanic. Sixty-five percent of those Hispanic residents are Mexican-American.
"Hispanic business leaders see this as a great opportunity. Labor leaders are not so sure," Mr. Alba says, recalling a Viva Bush! rally at a hotel.
But labor leaders who happened to be convening there were skeptical, saying: "You might gain a job for Juan down in Mexico, but you're going to lose a job for Pedro here in Chicago."
Brischetto says the SVRI focus groups cited related issues - crime, drugs, and gangs - as the most pressing problems in their local neighborhoods.
Alba adds education. "Hispanics have the highest dropout rate of any minority group - over 50 percent by some counts."
In the Little Village area of Chicago, one of the largest concentrations of Mexican-Americans in the country, residents have been waiting for two years for five public schools to be built, Alba says.
Luis Guiterrez, a Puerto Rican city councilman, is expected to win a seat in Congress from the majority Hispanic Fourth District on a platform of jobs, health care, and education.
In their voting patterns, Hispanics are a diverse part of American society. Although they share a linguistic heritage, that thread is all that binds the nation's Hispanic population, Brischetto says.
"People tend to lump Hispanics together and say, well, they are a single electorate." But the 22 million Hispanics in the United States are divided among Mexican-Americans (60 percent), Puerto Ricans (12 percent), Cubans (5 percent), and a score of other national origins (23 percent).
Nationality differences are seen in voting. "Cubans have a different political history than Mexicans," Brischetto explains. As refugees from Castro's communist regime, 80 percent of Cuban-Americans vote Republican.
Mexican-Americans, on the other hand, are more concerned about pocketbook issues than Cuban-Americans, who have a higher socioeconomic status. So 80 percent of Mexican-Americans vote Democratic.
This, however, does not mean a Democrat can take the Mexican-American vote for granted, or that a Republican candidate is wasting his time appealing to those voters.
When the Republicans put forth a Mexican-American candidate, he will win a large segment of the vote, Brischetto says.
While there are some 4,200 elected Hispanics serving nationwide, most are at the local level. There are none in the US Senate. The House of Representatives has 11, and could get as many as eight more, Brischetto says.
This election might also make clear the age factor in voter identification. While more than 90 percent of Mexican-Americans 65 and older identify with the Democrats, less than half of 18- to 24-year-olds do. The younger voters are divided between Republican and independent loyalties.
Age is also a reason tremendous growth in the Hispanic population has not been reflected in more electoral power.
While the number of Hispanics rose 53 percent in the decade from 1980 to 1990 - compared with only a 10 percent rate for the nation as a whole - Hispanic voting clout has been held down by such factors as relative youth, low levels of US citizenship, low education, high poverty, and partisan division, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Even with those hurdles, NALEO projects that Hispanics will cast 4.5 of every 100 votes in this presidential election.