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Hispanic Link News Service

The Barrio Door Is Open, But Will The GOP Walk In?

by Tim Chavez

January 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Hispanic Link News Service. All Rights Reserved.

Days before the general election, U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) gave the cheering GOP crowd what it wanted.

Just back on Tennessee soil from Washington, Thompson told the throng that President Clinton and the Democrats were trying to pass legislation that would let all those ``illegal aliens'' stay in the country. He promised that he and the GOP were not going to let this happen.

The crowd cheered lustily.

Immigration, legal or otherwise, gets the juices of the Republican faithful going. And the fear-heightening face of immigration is that of people who look like me, my parents and my grandparents.

But the great irony from the election is that the same face now holds the best, new hope for the GOP in the wake of its race relations disaster with African Americans over Florida voting irregularities. Nine of every 10 African Americans voted for Democrat Al Gore. And almost seven of 10 blacks surveyed later said they felt cheated by George W. Bush's victory.

Yet more than a third of Hispanic Americans voted for Bush. Exit polls cited by The New York Times, The Washington Post and ABC News put Bush's share of Hispanic voters somewhere between 33 percent and 38 percent. Four years ago, Bob Dole took 21 percent of that vote.

Bush's share might have been even larger if not for GOP opposition in Congress to the Democrat-crafted Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act. (A compromise bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton on Dec. 15, has helped clear the path for some 400,000 refugees and others of uncertain status -- less than half the number proposed in LIFA -- to become legal residents.)

But here's the most important statistic:

The Hispanic share of the national electorate, as reported by the National Council of La Raza, rose from 5 percent in 1998 to 7 percent in 2000. That share should reach 10 percent in 2004. And by then, U.S. Hispanics, who now number 36 million, will probably have surpassed African Americans as the nation's largest non-white racial or ethnic group.

The 2000 election showed that Hispanics still are more likely to choose candidates based on their positions on issues rather than party affiliation, La Raza said.

But in choosing his core Cabinet, Bush started off in the wrong direction. The high-profile negative views on affirmative action, immigration, bilingual education and civil rights expressed by the lone Mexican American he nominated -- Linda Chávez as Secretary of Labor -- caused La Raza president Raúl Yzaguirre to comment instantly, ``On virtually every policy issue of the day, her views are out of step with those of the vast majority of Hispanic Americans.'' Chávez once headed U.S. English, the nation's premier English-only advocacy organization.

The disclosure that Chávez had allowed an undocumented immigrant to live and work in her home early in the '90s forced her to withdraw herself from consideration as Secretary of Labor. It created an embarrassment for Bush and the GOP not only among Hispanics, but with the general population as well.

But the fact remains that the issue that can give Bush extra clout in the barrio is education. Hispanic families revolve around the value of securing a better life for their children. The most ready way to achieve it is through an appropriate and fair education. But such an education is not available to immigrant children here in Nashville, where I work, or in nearly all other large U.S. cities.

Democrats have bent over backward for the African-American agenda. But they have been most unwilling to budge for us. They see African-American anger over Florida as their way to win back Congress in 2002.

Yet our Hispanic children suffer the highest high-school dropout rate for any race or ethnicity. They do the worst in math and science testing, so they're eliminated from futures in higher-paying jobs. Because of little education and, for many, a lack of English proficiency, our families earn the least. Parents are more reticent to bring their concerns to educators. So our children are more easily neglected.

Ultimately, unaddressed wrongs become unbearable. Hispanics in California recently sued the state for the abysmal conditions of their children's schools. Here in Nashville, attorney Mario Ramos says his task force on the English-language education of immigrant children is weighing whether to sue the metro school district for gross inequities. This injustice is ongoing in a city where Gore's campaign headquarters was located and the mayor was a member of the Democratic Party's national platform committee.

During the debates, Gore boasted that Hispanic employment is at an all-time high. Yet our hopes -- through education -- remain dismally low.

More of Bush's sensitivity to such issues and less of Thompson's rhetoric will grab an even greater share of the Hispanic electorate for the GOP the next time at the polls. And Democrats will be left grasping for more to run on than African-American anger.

(Tim Chávez is a columnist with The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn.)

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