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A Sleeping Giant No Longer

Strong Latino voter support for President Obama brings political lessons

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December 26, 2012

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on November 12, 2012.

By Jamie Dominguez

This just in: Latino voters turn out in record numbers and carry President Obama to a second term as president. Wait, did I just read this correctly? Absolutely. For the second straight presidential election, Latino voters have sent a clear message to the president to get moving on taxes, jobs and comprehensive immigration reform. According to Latino Decisions exit polls, Obama received a whopping 75 percent of the Latino vote nationwide. This breaks the previous Latino record of 72 percent won by President Clinton in 1996. And Latinos made up 10 percent of the voters in this year's election, a significant increase from nine 9 in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004.

This support is extraordinary when once considers that Obama has deported more Latino immigrants than any previous administration. Latinos are giving Obama and the Democratic Party a second chance to do the right thing. It is in their best interest to listen and take action. If not, the 2014 midterm elections present another opportunity for Latinos to flex their political muscle and grab the attention of the administration.

Which suggests that Obama's administration should now begin to move forward on immigration reform. At the moment, the political capital is on Obama's side. The administration has already begun the effort with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). By executive order, DACA has enabled undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country before age 16 the chance to obtain Social Security Numbers for purposes of formal employment and to apply for driver's licenses and financial aid -- without fear of deportation. The next logical step is for the president to push Congress to reintroduce and pass the DREAM Act. With one House controlled by Democrats and the other by Republicans, it will be clear which party is willing to move forward on a matter that is so important to so many Latinos. If Republicans reject such reforms, they will do so at their own future political peril. Nor should the Democratic Party be blackmailed into allowing Republicans to propose a watered version of the DREAM Act that does not include a pathway to citizenship. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed a DREAM Act "lite," which only confers permanent legal status.

Public support is on the Democrats' side. A CNN exit poll shows that 65 percent of voters -- including 37 percent of Republicans -- support giving undocumented immigrant working the U.S. a path to legal status. A majority (65 percent) of non-Latinos support the DREAM Act, including its path to citizenship.

Some say that the loyalty of the Cuban-American vote will be enough for Republicans. But figures released by Miami's Bendixen & Amandi International show that even 48 percent of Florida's Cuban-Americans backed Obama. That gives Democrats a gain of 13 points among Cuban-Americans since 2008.

The political lessons are clear: Democrats should take this opportunity to capitalize on their solid support by rewarding Latinos with immigration reform. The Republican Party must learn that attempts to demonize various Latino subsets will only mean defeat at the ballot box.

Republicans must learn that the model they've been using to woo Latino voters is clearly not working. It is no longer enough to use Spanish-language advertising or to showcase a few Latino Republican leaders, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Gov. Susana Martinez (R-NM). Folks, this is not the 1970s or 1980s. Simple ethnic appeal is not enough. Latinos will no longer be bamboozled by such tactics. The political rhetoric must be accompanied by substantive policy.

America is becoming more diverse, as this election has made clear. Latinos are the fastest-growing component of this rapid transformation. There could be no better time for President Obama to take immigration reform to the Congress, and give Latino voters a glimpse of the future.

- Jaime Dominguez is a lecturer in the department of political science at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion