Ten years ago, when I was studying politics at the University of Arkansas, the consensus among students and professors was that Hispanics were destined to play an important role in state politics.
They are a fast-growing community that shares common values, economic circumstance and ethnic identity. Therefore, they would become a powerful electoral force as soon as they could register to vote, and it seemed obvious that both the Democrats and Republicans would want to begin courting them.
Maybe the Republicans would appeal to them on the basis of conservative family values, and the Hispanics would be the key to creating a new majority that would forever change the political alignment of Arkansas. Or possibly the Democrats would capture Hispanic loyalties by championing social policies that help the economically disadvantaged, and in doing so could offset the ever-increasing Republican base in Northwest Arkansas.
As it turns out, those rational academic assumptions were dead wrong. With a few admirable exceptions, both parties have succumbed to an ugly anti-immigrant sentiment that can only harm our state.
Last Saturday, according to the Arkansas News Bureau, one of U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s staff members told the Democratic Party state committee, “Hispanics in Arkansas now no longer know who is friend and who is foe,” and added, “[. . .] this legislative session placed Hispanics back on the fence, wondering if there is anything different between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”
Of course, this was the session that included the unusual coalition of Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and Democratic state Rep. Joyce Elliott in support of a bill that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to compete for scholarships to state colleges. Votes on both sides of the aisle defeated the legislation.
That and other anti-immigrant actions at the State Capitol can be explained by short-sighted political expediency. Most Hispanics aren’t registered to vote, but angry white people are.
In that way, members of both parties are making the same kind of cynical, morally bankrupt calculation they made during the days of racial segregation. It’s disgraceful and disappointing that the Democrats, at least, haven’t learned the lesson that doing the right thing can also be politically advantageous in the long run.
After all, the noble work of the national Democratic Party on civil rights earned the unflinching loyalty of African-Americans to this day — even in the South, where Democrats didn’t really deserve it. Now Democratic candidates in many areas could not get elected without always-reliable African-American votes.
The Hispanic population could someday be a similarly solid voting bloc in Arkansas, and it would seem to be a more natural fit with the Democratic Party, because the extreme anti-immigrant line is being pushed mainly by Republicans from Northwest Arkansas.
Those Republicans are less likely to be reformed on the subject, because their stance isn’t truly rooted in abstract policy concerns. For instance, Northwest Arkansas has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, so immigrants aren’t “stealing jobs.” Rather, the anti-immigrant feeling up there (and elsewhere) is probably motivated by racism more than anything else.
The state would be better served by programs that acknowledge and sensibly address the issues raised by our growing immigrant population. Natural economic forces are fueling their influx, and they will neither stop coming nor leave. The sooner we can adapt to that reality and help them become productive and contributing members of society, the better.
And the sooner our politicians gain enough courage to recognize that fact and repudiate the appeals to hate, the better for all of us. If one political party happens to lead the way, it will reap the benefits.