With approximately 60 million Latinos in the United States, it would be a mistake for any political party to ignore the Latino vote in a presidential-election year like this one. Political theorist Cristina Beltrán, who studies Latino political identity in the U.S., says it’s also a mistake to think of Latinos as a homogeneous voting bloc. She warns that any sentence beginning with “The Latino community thinks . . .” is likely to be wrong.
Culturally and politically, U.S. Latinos are diverse and forever evolving. Although the majority of Latinos lean Democratic, Mexican Americans in Texas, Cuban Americans in Florida, and Puerto Ricans in New York often hold different political beliefs. And while a narrow majority of Latinos in the U.S. are Catholic, large numbers are evangelical; some, like Beltrán, are Jewish; and an increasing number have no religion.
Beltrán, who is of Mexican ancestry, was raised in Southern California and New Mexico in the 1970s and learned from her parents how politics directly affects our lives. Her father was an autoworker who became a union organizer, and her mother got involved in feminist and Latino causes while taking college classes part-time. Though her mother never finished her degree, Beltrán earned a BA in politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, becoming the first in her family to graduate from college. While a student, she served as the cochair of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and was active in UCSC’s Third World Coalition fighting for educational rights. She also acted in student theater, with roles ranging from Frida Kahlo to Elizabeth Proctor. (She says with a laugh that she was probably “the first Mexican-Jewish Puritan” in a production of The Crucible.) After graduation she went on to obtain a PhD in political science from Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her dissertation grew into her first book, The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, published in 2010.
Currently an associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, Beltrán has a new book coming out this month titled Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy. She is also working on a book about Latino conservatism. She’s written about authors from Richard Rodriguez to Walt Whitman, and her work has appeared in Political Theory, the Du Bois Review, and Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies. She’s been a frequent guest at academic conferences and on television shows, including MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.
Beltrán lives not far from NYU with her husband, Matthew Budman, an author, editor, and book dealer. She is an enthusiastic, amusing conversationalist and made me feel immediately at home in their apartment, which is filled with first editions, music memorabilia, and family photos. (We spoke before the pandemic.) During our conversation we discovered we were raised in the same suburban area of Los Angeles — although many years apart — and both our fathers were union organizers in the city.
Leviton: Before I came to see you this morning, I turned on the local NY1 television station and saw a promo asserting that Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, and so on are “united.”
Beltrán: That’s hilarious, that somehow these diverse communities are a single market or a single political community. Advertisers and political parties often fail to reach the “Latino community” because they don’t recognize Latinos’ different identities.
The “Latino community” includes people who just arrived in the U.S. and those who’ve been in North America for hundreds of years. My mother’s family has been in New Mexico for generations. I can visit the house in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where my grandmother was born in 1911. I’ve visited the graves of my great-great-grandparents in the local cemetery. My mom used to joke that her family thought they were “Chicano Pilgrims,” because they claimed they could trace our family’s presence in New Mexico to the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate in the sixteenth century.
Like the term Asian American, Latino is a pan-ethnic classification that includes Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Dominican Americans, and more. Recently more people have begun using the term Latinx as a gender-neutral, nonbinary alternative to Latino. But both terms refer to people living in the U.S. who can trace their ancestry to the Spanish-speaking regions of Latin America and the Caribbean. So describing someone as Latino or Latinx tells you something about them, but it also leaves out a lot. It doesn’t tell you their national origin, their gender, whether they are native-born or undocumented, urban or rural, young or old, or what their religion or race is. There are Black Latinos, white Latinos, Indigenous Latinos, and mestizos, or “mixed” Latinos.
On the other hand, Latino can represent a sense of shared identity. When someone experiences racist violence, whether they are of Mexican or Colombian descent, it can bond them to other members of the group, generating a sense of collective identity. If you are Latinx in a majority-white environment, you might see another Latino in the room and feel a connection. A lot of college-educated Latinos grew up in very diverse communities but later got jobs in mostly white workplaces where, even if among themselves they recognize their differences as Honduran or Puerto Rican or Cuban, those in authority tend to view them as a single group.
Leviton: The Spanish language — despite Portuguese-speakers forming an important minority among Latinos — certainly seems to be a cultural binding agent. When angry white people scream, “Speak English! This is America!” they are telling Latinos of every background, “You don’t belong here! Go back where you came from!”
Beltrán: Yes, speaking Spanish can make someone a target of racist violence, but it’s also a source of community that helps produce a pan-ethnic identity across populations and subgroups. It’s funny, I grew up in California thinking everyone who spoke Spanish was Mexican. As far as I knew, “Latino” was just another way of saying “Chicano.” One of my mom’s best friends was Puerto Rican, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. It was only when I got older and became more educated that I came to learn the histories of other Latino communities.
Of course, some states are less homogeneous than California or Texas and have a much wider range of Latino communities. In New York, for example, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans have a long shared civic and cultural history. They worked in cigar factories together. They were involved in union organizing in the twentieth century. They published Spanish-language newspapers and literary journals together. Today networks like Univision, Telemundo, and Estrella TV make it possible for Spanish-speakers of all backgrounds to watch Mexican telenovelas, Colombian soccer, the Billboard Latin Music Awards, and movies from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and beyond.
But even the Spanish language is a source of difference. Spanish-speakers from the Caribbean sometimes have their Spanish denigrated by other Latinos. Spanish-speakers may not even understand one another. Years ago one of my uncles was in Spain with his girlfriend, and the cabdriver asked them what language they were speaking — he couldn’t understand their Chicano Spanglish. Moreover, sharing the Spanish language does not mean all Spanish-speakers inhabit a common culture or have a shared politics any more than it does with English-speakers. Both Americans who hate Donald Trump and those who love him speak English. It’s the same with English-speakers fighting over Brexit in the UK.
Anti-immigrant groups worry that Spanish is taking over the U.S. and that immigrants will refuse to learn English, but the data show that’s not at all what’s happening. The real story is that the United States is a graveyard for any language besides English. Scholars have consistently shown significant language loss after the first generation. According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis, about half of second-generation Latinos are bilingual, and only about a quarter of the third generation speak Spanish. Third- and fourth-generation Latinos in the U.S. often don’t speak Spanish at all.
My Spanish is terrible. I have about thirty cousins, and only a few speak fluent Spanish. And this language loss has a history. Some parents discouraged their children from speaking Spanish to protect them from discrimination. My grandparents were farmworkers in Texas. When my dad was born in Clint, they were workers on a cotton plantation. The first school my dad attended in Texas was a “Mexican school” where he was punished for speaking Spanish. His generation was made to feel stupid for speaking Spanish while also being told that neither their Spanish nor their English was “correct.” And now many of us who are third- and fourth-generation feel ashamed about our “bad” Spanish. So the story is not that Spanish is taking over — it’s that racism has produced a lot of emotional trauma for Spanish-speaking migrants and their families.
Anti-immigrant groups worry that Spanish is taking over the U.S. and that immigrants will refuse to learn English, but the data show that’s not at all what’s happening. The real story is that the United States is a graveyard for any language besides English.
Leviton: Under the Trump administration, anti-Mexican attitudes have been on full display. He built his candidacy on promises to build a wall to keep out the Mexican “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.”
Beltrán: It’s true: Trump has been a nightmare for Latinos. But anti-Mexican sentiment has a long history in this country. When the Republic of Texas was established in 1836, Tejanos [Mexicans who lived in what is now Texas — Ed.] weren’t treated as equals. The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, in which Mexico lost about a third of its remaining territory, was seen as proof of white America’s “manifest destiny” and a triumph over an inferior people. Whites wanted to get as much land as they could with as few Mexicans on it as possible. Some in the U.S. government wanted to take over all of Mexico, but they didn’t want the Mexicans who came with it. You have South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun in 1848 describing Mexicans as an amalgamation of “impure races, not [even] as good as the Cherokees or Choctaws.” And you have Michigan senator Lewis Cass reassuring Congress, “We do not want the people of Mexico, either as citizens or subjects. All we want is a portion of territory, which they nominally hold, generally uninhabited, or where inhabited at all, sparsely so, and with a population which would recede, or identify itself with ours.”
From the get-go, the U.S. attitude was that Mexicans were good only for their labor or their land. They were not incorporated into the U.S. as fellow citizens engaged in the shared practice of self-governance. They were viewed as “foreigners with U.S. citizenship,” questionable subjects whose political membership was continually suspect and often resented. Not surprisingly, Mexican Americans found themselves relegated to a stigmatized, subordinate position throughout the Southwest. At best, Mexicans could assimilate: claim the European side of their identity and say their family was “Spanish.” The less Mexican you were, the better.
In the sixties Chicano activists reacted to the shame they’d grown up with by reconnecting to their history, often by embracing and reclaiming their Indigenous roots. Chicanos celebrated their Aztec and Mayan ancestry while Puerto Rican groups like the Young Lords in Chicago reclaimed their Taino and African heritage, describing themselves as an Afro-Taino people. The Taino are the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, the ones Christopher Columbus encountered in 1492.
Leviton: I saw the sixties Chicano civil-rights movement up close, being raised in the Los Angeles suburbs in the fifties and sixties. I was an outsider, but I remember the “Battle of Chavez Ravine,” when the city removed an entire Mexican American neighborhood so the Dodgers could build a baseball stadium on it. I remember César Chávez leading the United Farm Workers’ boycott of nonunion grapes, and the protests against police brutality by the Brown Berets. And my dad worked for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which had thousands of Spanish-speaking members.
Beltrán: I had family in that area, too. My dad worked at the Van Nuys General Motors plant for thirty years and served as president of the United Auto Workers Local 645 from 1978 to 1987. Our fathers probably knew each other!
The U.S. military has invaded Central American countries multiple times. . . . We deposed leaders who opposed United Fruit, supported military dictatorships and death squads, and gave weapons to anyone we believed was anticommunist.
Leviton: In college I was very aware of the “Chicano pride” groups and the Chicano Studies Research Center on the UCLA campus. It seemed to me as much a cultural movement as a political one. There was a lot of talk about “reclaiming Aztlán,” the homeland of the Aztecs.
Beltrán: Definitely. Up until the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements, Latinos were encouraged to identify more strongly with Spanish culture than with our Indigenous side. To have darker skin or “look Indian” was considered less attractive. The standard of European beauty was the norm.
The Chicano and Puerto Rican movements both refused to participate in “respectability politics” — they weren’t interested in trying to prove to white society that their success made them “deserving” of rights. Earlier generations had tried that strategy, and they were still marginalized and mistreated. The movement activists didn’t want to capitulate to the logic of colonial conquest. They identified their struggle with the struggle of the most marginalized and stigmatized members of the community — farmworkers, high-school dropouts, prisoners, poor single moms, veterans coping with addiction. At the same time, beyond the movement, you still had a lot of Latinos asserting their Spanish roots, aspiring to whiteness and traditional notions of the “American Dream.”
Many of the leaders of the Chicano student movement were kids who had been pretty good at succeeding in becoming part of the “white world.” But as they became politicized, they began to recognize the racism inherent in being told they were “special” or “different” from their families and peers. A lot of these young activists were still working through their own experiences with assimilation, which made them insecure about their identities. This led some to become particularly disciplinary when it came to policing the boundaries of cultural “authenticity.”
Leviton: In school I was taught that Latino history is one of unrelenting victimization, first from the European powers who decimated the Indigenous populations and plundered their natural resources, and then from the likes of the United Fruit Company, which dominated South and Central America economically with the encouragement of the government of the United States.
Beltrán: Yes, and that violence is real. Latin America has had to contend with the constant involvement of the U.S., Britain, and Russia. Think of the CIA-backed coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the Falklands War between Argentina and the UK in 1982, Ronald Reagan’s support of the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S. invasion of Panama to remove Manuel Noriega in 1990, and on and on. The U.S. military has invaded Central American countries multiple times. My students are shocked to find out how common it has been. We deposed leaders who opposed United Fruit, supported military dictatorships and death squads, and gave weapons to anyone we believed was anticommunist. That’s a crucial history for Americans to know, particularly when trying to understand the contemporary politics of immigration.
Another factor in immigration that’s often overlooked is climate change, which the Pentagon has called a “threat multiplier.” The United Nations estimates that more than 2 million Central Americans have been affected by drought, poor harvests, crop diseases, and agricultural pests. This is aside from the effects of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], which has also been a major cause of economic upheaval and displacement.
At the same time, I want my students to understand that when people move across borders, they often aren’t thinking about how their movement is linked to the long history of U.S. interventions into Latin America or other grand geopolitical policies. Sometimes those issues are very front and center for migrants, but migration is also experienced in deeply personal terms. Some people migrate for the economic survival of their families, or because they are fleeing violence or political repression. Migrants aren’t just figures of desperation, though. They also migrate to fulfill their dreams and ambitions, or because they want something different. Maybe they want to get away from their village or their families. Maybe they’re nineteen years old and want to go to film school at NYU!
Leviton: When it comes to immigration policy, those fleeing communist and socialist countries get a special break, don’t they?
Beltrán: Who gets designated a “refugee” is highly politicized. Cold War politics meant that the U.S. government has looked on refugees from Cuba much more kindly than refugees from El Salvador. If you’re Muslim and fleeing a war zone, you are treated with more scrutiny than a Christian fleeing a war zone. It’s gotten worse under the current administration. Trump has no problem openly wishing for more immigrants from Norway instead of all those dark-skinned people on our southern border. The U.S. attorney general announced that threats due to domestic violence or by criminal gangs and drug cartels will no longer qualify migrants for asylum.
Given how entwined our histories have been, I think the U.S. has a moral responsibility with regard to citizens of Central and South America. Instead we “individualize” immigration, treating it as if it’s only about a single person at a time, when really it’s tied to the history of the region.
Leviton: Why are Latino populations in the U.S. South and Midwest growing so rapidly?
Beltrán: There have been long-standing Latino communities in the Midwest, in cities like Chicago, for generations. But it’s true that the Latino population has grown dramatically in both the Midwest and the South. Southern states in particular have registered very fast rates of Latino population growth since the 1990s. That’s exciting. It’s also hard for Latinos living in the South today because that region has fewer and weaker labor laws, fewer protections for workers, and higher unemployment. Plus many of the Latinos living in the South are foreign-born and not citizens, though their children are. This makes life very precarious for them. In August 2019 immigration agents arrested 680 factory workers in seven chicken-processing plants in Mississippi — though, as far as I know, they didn’t arrest any of the factory owners for hiring undocumented workers in violation of labor laws. Hundreds of children, born in the United States, found out their parents were incarcerated and in danger of being deported. This is the situation for too many mixed-status families.
Leviton: How has this influx of Latinos affected those regions culturally?
Beltrán: Immigration is actually reviving rural areas. There are new stores, new businesses, new schools. It’s all part of the continuing work of creating a multiracial, multicultural nation. The Latino population has tripled in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, over the last few decades. It’s no longer unusual to hear Spanish spoken on the street there. That’s the United States today. But political power is still unevenly distributed. Despite the growth of Latinos in the Midwest and the South, almost half of all Latinos in the U.S. live in just two states: California and Texas. Many are not citizens or are in the process of gaining citizenship. Many are not yet of voting age, and their parents are not always citizens. So we need to be careful in distinguishing between the overall Latino population and the Latino electorate. In the long run, though, the political parties know they must appeal to Latino voters in order to win. And that reality is only growing with every election cycle.
Leviton: I’d like to go back to something you said earlier: that “Latino” is not a race.
Beltrán: Yes, some Latinos are Black, some are white, some are mestizo. Many of the folks who are migrating from Latin America are Indigenous. They might speak Quechua and not be fluent in Spanish.
Leviton: In Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, two Indigenous women work as live-in maids for a well-off Mexico City family and privately speak a Mixtec language, which is unintelligible to the Spanish-speakers in the household.
Beltrán: Yes, that’s a subtlety not all English-speaking audiences caught. Aside from being about Cuarón’s childhood, the film is also about race and class and the inequalities that characterize the status of Indigenous people in Mexican society. The first thing we see the maid Cleo doing is cleaning up dog shit.
We Latinos used to tell ourselves that Latin America didn’t have racial problems. Only Anglos were racists! For much of the twentieth century Brazil’s history of slavery — more than 5 million slaves were forcibly transported to Brazil from Africa — was not presented in schoolbooks there. Latinos are a hybrid of European, African, Asian, and Indigenous cultures. But sometimes in our celebration of mestizaje [mixed ancestries], we failed to examine the racial and structural inequalities in Mexico and across Latin America. Who is cleaning whose houses?
So there is no magic place where these racial issues don’t exist. But sometimes my students get confused when I say Latino is not a race. I always ask them, “Have you ever watched baseball? Haven’t you noticed that a lot of Black players have names like Soriano, Cano, or Sandoval?” Or in politics I’ll mention Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Both Latino. Both white. Racial categories are social and historical constructs that have changed over time. My father was born in Texas in 1940, and his birth certificate says, “Caucasian.” That amused my dad to no end, because he was very dark, very Indian-looking. If he’d been born a few years earlier, his birth certificate would not have said, “Caucasian.” It would have said, “Mexican.”
Today the census asks you to first state if you are of Hispanic or Latino origin. Then it asks you in a separate question to describe your race. This can be confusing because Latino is still often viewed as a racial category. The fact is, Latinos are a multiracial population. You see this in Latino families. If I did a slide show of all my first cousins, you’d see that some are more Indigenous in appearance, some are very dark-skinned, and some are blond and blue-eyed. And we’re all Mexican and in the same family.
Many Latinos in the U.S. are deeply aware of their family’s history of migration and see today’s undocumented as the newest chapter in their own stories.
Leviton: I imagine that for Caribbean Latinos, many of whom have African ancestry, race is a difficult landscape to traverse.
Beltrán: It can be. Right now many Latinx people are emphasizing our African heritage, and we are criticizing the long history of anti-Blackness across the Americas, which is important and exciting but not always easy. A reckoning with anti-Black sentiment in the Latino community is underway and can create discomfort for some. Latinx communities need to think about what it means to do antiracist work. We are not just the victims of racism — we have perpetuated it.
Leviton: What stereotypes do different Latinx communities have of one another? Are there tensions between neighboring communities?
Beltrán: Of course. Just as in the non-Hispanic white population, there are stereotypes or conflicts over ideology and partisanship. But I think there is often more ignorance than actual hostility between Latinx communities. When I mention [Cuban revolutionary] José Martí in my class at NYU, he’s as familiar to some of my Latinx students as George Washington. Other Latinx students have no idea who he is. We don’t expect the Italians and the Irish to know each other’s history because both start with I. [Laughs.] And, as with the Irish, sometimes the tensions are internal to the country. People from El Salvador might have fought on opposite sides in the civil war there. Pro- and anti-Castro Cubans are firmly divided ideologically.
Leviton: What’s the dynamic like between Latino naturalized citizens and the undocumented?
Beltrán: Latinos with citizenship might feel solidarity with the undocumented, but they also may not. Many Latinos in the U.S. are deeply aware of their family’s history of migration and see today’s undocumented as the newest chapter in their own stories. Latinos with different immigration statuses work with each other, live in the same neighborhoods, and marry each other. There are a great many mixed-status families. But there are also many Latinos whose families have been here for multiple generations and who see the undocumented the way many Anglos see them — as menial laborers quite distant from themselves, strangers who cut the grass or clean the pool or refill the water glasses at the restaurant.
If you are Cuban — a group that hasn’t faced a lot of immigration restrictions — you might not be very upset by anti-immigrant rhetoric. Maybe you think you came to the U.S. the “right way” and that Central American refugees aren’t waiting their turn. Given the reality of our broken immigration system, that view would be based on a lot of faulty information, but it still exists.
And then you have Latinos who work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] or the Border Patrol. Today more than half of Border Patrol agents are Latino. How do those Latino agents see their role? I don’t think they can be dismissed as sellouts because they want good jobs with pensions. Speaking Spanish is a plus in applying for those jobs, and you don’t need a college degree. They may feel little sympathy for those who cross the border illegally.
We’ve got to recognize we are in a both/and situation when we study Latinx communities. Some Latinos are immigrant-rights activists, and some are ICE agents working in detention centers. Some are homophobic, and some are transgender activists. Any point of view is just a snapshot: a valid part of the picture, but not the entire picture.
We have a long way to go before we have adequate representation of the diversity among the 60 million Latinos in this country. Latinos are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, underfunded schools, and rates of incarceration while being seriously underrepresented on the editorial pages of our major newspapers, in art museums, in universities, and in politics. Less than 2 percent of television producers and writers are Latinx. The problem with being so underrepresented is that no single voice is going to tell “the Hispanic story.” It’s an aggregate of many voices. [Former Democratic presidential candidate] Julián Castro is often expected to speak on behalf of all Latinos. But he can’t tell you everything about Latinx culture. He’s just one guy!
Leviton: The Trump administration has been using various executive orders and legal maneuvers to get refugee admissions as close to zero as they can. Detention facilities on our southern border are dangerously over capacity, and the deaths of children in custody are met largely with indifference.
Beltrán: Anyone who’s lived in a border community knows the line between nations is inevitably porous and that movement across those borders is routine. The back-and-forth is fundamental to those places. I think of my own family. My paternal grandparents came from Chihuahua, Mexico, and settled in the U.S. just outside El Paso, Texas, during the Mexican Revolution. For my dad’s family, that move from Chihuahua to Clint was not nearly as dramatic as their move from Texas to California during World War II. In some ways that migration was a more profound change.
So the Trump administration’s dream of building a wall and trying to seal off the border is folly. They have a kind of toxic fantasy where they can dehumanize and punish a whole population. We need to acknowledge the routine movement across the border, which is going to continue no matter what, and figure out how to provide for people’s dignity and safety. The economic connections between Mexico and the U.S. are so important that anytime the xenophobes get the upper hand, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reminds them that U.S.-Mexico trade is $1.85 billion per day and the just-in-time delivery methods of factories would be disastrously disrupted by any prolonged border closure. Auto plants in the U.S., for instance, would start closing immediately.
Stephen Miller, who drives Trump’s immigration policy, has reportedly said he’d be “happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.” I write a lot about the political and emotional logic behind the Trump administration’s assault on migrants in my new book, Cruelty as Citizenship. And one thing I point out is that a certain segment of Republican voters takes a lot of pleasure in witnessing, enacting, and giving voice to antimigrant practices and policies. And this nativism is deeply linked to how white supremacy and settler colonialism have shaped American conceptions of freedom, democracy, law, sovereignty, and movement. Slavery and Jim Crow, for example, gave everyday white Americans the right to police and punish African Americans, demanding that they acquiesce to humiliating codes of racial etiquette and invoking the authority of the law in order to exert domination over them. And this was about more than exclusion — it was about the pleasure and freedom to wield (and even exceed) the law. In the past white citizens could engage in acts of racial violence with few consequences — mob violence, lynchings — but that’s no longer the case. And this is where antimigrant violence comes in. Today migrants represent the rare population that nativists can subject to state-sanctioned and extralegal violence and terror.
In the past whites had the freedom to both say and do foul things to nonwhites with virtually no consequences. Today the Trump rally offers a version of that former freedom. A MAGA rally is a kind of free-fire zone of vitriol. And if you want to do more than just engage in hateful speech, you can go volunteer on the border, where private militias patrol with military-style weapons and detain border-crossers. These are all civic forms of racial domination, and they are available because most migrants are not citizens, so violent actions against them can be justified as lawful, necessary, and authorized. I think this type of racialized domination is very empowering to a certain segment of Trump’s base, and he knows this.
Leviton: In a recent Gallup poll 76 percent of respondents said immigration was a good thing for this country — the highest reading on that question in Gallup’s history.
Beltrán: There was far more panic about immigration twenty years ago than there is now. Current projections by the U.S. Census indicate whites will be a minority by 2045. But today anxiety over this demographic shift is actually most acute where the population is least diverse. The towns with the largest Hispanic communities experience less xenophobia than those where there’s only one Mexican restaurant. When different groups live near each other, they often find they can live together.
For most Americans immigration is not a galvanizing issue, but a small minority of nativists in the GOP are driven by anti-immigrant rage. I think the only way Trump could actually lose supporters is if he acted with sympathy toward immigrants or made any compromise on creating paths to citizenship. He could literally do anything else. But if his supporters thought he was becoming “soft on immigration,” that’s the issue his base would lose their minds over.
A lot of white people today are angry. They want the benefits of upward mobility, and when those advantages aren’t forthcoming, they aim their rage toward nonwhites, whose success they see as coming at their expense. I understand the desire for sovereignty. Most of us want to have some control over the spaces we inhabit — whether you are a Trump supporter or a member of a tribal community or an environmental activist or anybody else. Outside of the 1 percent, everyone, to some extent, feels they don’t have enough control, that economic and social decisions are being made by powerful people behind closed doors, and that elected officials can’t be trusted to listen. That’s a terrifying feeling, to be powerless. People ask themselves, “Who’s making me powerless?” And for some white citizens the answer is immigrants. Once we expel them, the toxic logic goes, we’ll have an economy that provides meaningful and financially beneficial work for all. Utopia! It’s the scarcity logic of nativism: if migrants rise, we lose.
Leviton: Some white people complain that immigrants are taking “our jobs,” but undocumented workers and migrants do some of the dirtiest, most backbreaking, dangerous, and tedious jobs out there.
Beltrán: I really hate the idea that migrants are valuable primarily because they do the work that no one else will do. Why should any population be subject to unbearable labor? Why can’t we imagine a world where nobody has to labor under such exploitative and dehumanizing conditions?
That said, it’s been shown time and time again that immigrants do not push Americans out of jobs and often take jobs Americans won’t. According to the Department of Labor, U.S. workers fill about 2 percent of the farm-labor vacancies. In 2013, when Obama was tightening the border, the president of Titan Farms, a major peach grower in South Carolina, told legislators that he advertised 2,000 jobs at above minimum wage and hired 483 U.S. applicants: 109 didn’t show up on the first day, 321 quit within a few days of starting work, and only 31 made it through the whole peach-picking season. Immigrants, documented or not, are net-positive contributors to the federal budget. There’s variation state by state, but overall the taxes immigrants pay outweigh their use of services.
I should say that labor leader César Chávez initially thought undocumented workers drove down wages. Early on in the 1960s, Chávez worried that the undocumented could be used as strikebreakers. There was no easy solidarity between native-born Latino union members and migrant laborers. During the grape strike a line was drawn within the United Farm Workers between U.S. citizens and noncitizens. Chávez could see that Mexican migrant workers were exploited and considered disposable, and he worried this attitude might leak over into treatment of native-born workers. He also wanted to gain clout in California and national politics, which created tension with the younger activists of the Chicano movement, who supported solidarity with those deemed “illegal.”
The influence of younger activists eventually turned Chávez around, and he went from wanting to restrict immigration to supporting amnesty. In 1974 Chávez opposed a plan to deport a million undocumented workers, saying they were “doubly exploited, first because they are farmworkers, and second because they are powerless to defend their own interests.”
Leviton: For nativists, immigrants’ willingness to do the worst jobs is not a sign of resilience but rather of debasement: only inferior specimens will put up with such mistreatment.
Beltrán: Yes, it’s incredibly ugly and dehumanizing. They’re forced to work for low wages and then get blamed for holding down everyone else’s wages. They become the perpetrators of their own condition. Former attorney general Jeff Sessions used to say we don’t need labor unions to protect workers — we just need to expel undocumented workers, and wages will rise. He didn’t explain how poultry factories, which depend on low wages for their profits, were suddenly going to increase compensation.
Leviton: Despite his nativist rhetoric, Trump got 29 percent of the Latino vote in 2016.
Beltrán: If Hillary Clinton had increased her share of the Latino vote by just three percentage points in Florida and Michigan, she would be president now. But let’s be clear. Trump was elected in 2016 because of the white vote: He won 58 percent of white men and women, while only 37 percent voted for Clinton. The majority of Latinos voted for Clinton. That said, we have to go back to the fact that the Latino vote is not monolithic. According to Pew Research Center data, American-born Latinos are much more likely than naturalized citizens to approve of Trump. Latino men supported Trump in higher numbers than Latina women. Trump’s vocal support for the overthrow of Venezuela’s socialist leader Nicolás Maduro, for instance, plays well with Cubans. No doubt some Latino Republicans liked Trump for other reasons. Perhaps they took pleasure in his misogyny or his Islamophobia.
We need to remember that when politicians attack undocumented workers, they are attacking people who can’t vote. When you attack immigrants, it’s more complicated, because some are citizens who can vote, and others are green-card holders who can’t. Latino voters are a subset of the Latino population. They tend to be older, better educated, and more affluent than the Latino population as a whole. Latinos are the youngest ethnic group in the U.S.; the median age is twenty-eight. They are also poorer overall. So expanding the number of Latino voters means working hard to turn nonvoters into voters. Latinos are also a more working-class population, a group that might find it harder to take time off to vote. All these factors affect turnout for Latino voters.
According to my colleagues Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, who run the research firm Latino Decisions, about 25 percent of Latino voters vote Republican, and those numbers held steady for Donald Trump. Meanwhile the majority of Latinos remain reliably Democrats. Clearly Trump has appalled and offended a great many Latino people, many of whom are eligible to vote. Latinos came out in very high numbers for the 2018 midterms. But, contrary to what strategists might think, being abused by this administration doesn’t necessarily get people out to vote. It’s like saying if you abuse women, they’ll become feminists. Abuse doesn’t produce activism — it produces abuse. So don’t blame the Latino community for the outcome of the 2016 election. The Democratic Party needs to put serious resources into organizing and mobilizing communities rather than just assuming that Republican attacks create Democratic support. And political efforts have to be specific to local conditions. You can’t give the same speech to Cuban voters in Florida and Mexican Americans in Nevada. There are big regional differences.
Right now a lot of grassroots Latino organizations across the country, but especially in the Southwest, are setting up impressive voter-registration and get-out-the-vote operations. I wish the Democratic Party would put more resources into these communities instead of waiting until shortly before an election and parachuting in a few campaign workers to do some half-assed Latino-turnout work. Latinos are not automatically the firewall for the Democratic Party.
The Trump administration’s dream of building a wall and trying to seal off the border is folly. They have a kind of toxic fantasy where they can dehumanize and punish a whole population.
Leviton: Why did the Trump administration try to include a question about citizenship on the U.S. census?
Beltrán: The question “Are you a citizen?” reduces the number of Latino people who will fill out the form. Many fear that, by checking the box that says, “Not a citizen,” they are signing up to be deported. Republicans want to undercount the Latino population because it may ultimately reduce the number of congressional districts in blue states. It would also give the government information about where undocumented people live, and this administration has made it clear they would love to deport millions if they could. Trump and his Republican enablers are trying to disappear entire populations, to make them officially invisible.
I really think the Republican Party has given up on the idea that it can win a majority of the votes without gerrymandering and voter suppression. If the rules are fair, they can’t win nationally. The belief that Republicans can make a case for their vision of this country and win over swing voters the way they did in previous electoral cycles is gone. I think they actually look at Latinos and think, Those people might be citizens, but they aren’t “real” Americans.
Trump has clearly shattered norms, but he also echoes earlier practices of white supremacy that sought to take away the rights of certain populations, to deny certain groups equality under the law, to attack the free press, and to undermine the Constitution. For many white voters this looks like a new authoritarianism. For a lot of nonwhite voters this looks like a repeat of the past. The U.S. has never fully reformed the social institutions that were designed for white advantage. We’ve never had a healthy democracy for all Americans. I hope the upcoming election takes us in that direction.