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Beyond Supreme Court ruling: Romney, Obama, and America don't get Hispanics

Hispanic-Americans comprise the fastest growing electorate in the country and possibly the most misunderstood. Their views on the Arizona immigration law (SB 1070), which the Supreme Court upheld in part with its ruling today, exemplify the complex contours of Hispanic voters.

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And what about the tempestuous issue of immigration? Studies consistently confirm that Hispanics are fully attuned to the intricate dynamics of the subject, support sealing permeable borders, and appreciate the costs and demands of citizenship. And while they certainly experience themselves as a distinct class of Americans (as 47 percent attest), they also appreciate the value and necessity of assimilation (87 percent count proficiency in English as important to succeeding in the US).

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In this light, attempts to win the Hispanic vote through simplistic demagoguery on immigration are not only condescending but destined for failure.

The same complexities apply to religion. According to a 2007 Pew survey, for more than two-thirds of Hispanic-Americans, political matters are fundamentally intertwined with religious ones, dampening the persuasive impact of strictly secular appeals to them. This means that the question of how naturally conservative or liberal they are is enmeshed in the fabric of their religious identity, which turns out to be evolving.

Approximately one-third of all Catholics in America are Latino, and this number promises to expand over time. But a 2006 Pew study found that a majority of Latino Catholics identify themselves as “charismatic” or pentecostal – or those who incorporate less traditional practices like divine healing, speaking in tongues, and personal revelation into their worship.

This swelling cleavage between traditional Catholic practitioners and converts to Evangelicalism is significant for political reasons. While Catholic Hispanics tend to be more conservative than the general population when it comes to gay marriage and the size and role of government, Evangelical Hispanics typically lurch further to the right on social issues, foreign policy, and the remediation of poverty.

It's also worth noting that the Hispanic experience in America seems to include a generational secularization: While 69 percent of Hispanic immigrants describe religion as central to their lives, only 49 percent of Hispanics born here say the same. As the numbers of Hispanics born in the US continue to flourish, the metamorphosis of their spiritual identity will have reverberations that affect the entire landscape of American religious – and political – life.

With the presidential campaign season in full swing, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have set their focused sights on Hispanic allegiance. However, both Democrats and Republicans have failed to engage seriously with the diverse, complex Latino community and their interests. Instead, candidates choose cheap rhetorical victories over opportunities for forthright leadership.

Obama’s approach has been marked, or marred, by opportunistic pandering: Rather than articulate an overarching plan for immigration reform, he cherry picked one legislative component of the stillborn DREAM act and enacted it by dubious executive fiat.

Romney’s strategy has been to maintain a posture of obdurate evasiveness: After placating the far right by sullying every possible compromise with the stain of amnesty, he now refuses to stake a clear position, peddling intentional ambiguity as principled moderation. The parties have finally found common ground in their appetite for relentless (even strategic) inaction and vagary.

But the plight and interests of Hispanic-Americans aren’t just important to pandering politicians in an election year. All Americans should take notice of the contest for Hispanic-American voters, partly because of their inexorably growing influence and impact, and partly because their plight is microcosm of our national identity as a whole.

In a way not duplicated by any other country in the world, American identity is less about place and borders than it is about ideas. Our country's emphasis on the beliefs that constitute the national soul rather than birth on its soil (or country of origin). make it an ideal home for the world's wandering homeless. Hispanics have come here in droves, inspired by the same optimism that has attracted so many from other distant shores. Since they are here to stay (79 percent report that they would do it all over again if given the chance), we should learn more about this rising new community of Americans.

Ivan Kenneally is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.


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