When it comes to politics, not all immigrants are created equal. While the 2008 presidential campaign saw intense efforts by both major candidates to seduce Hispanic voters, other ethnic groups did not receive comparable levels of attention.
But one thing foreign-born voters of all origins have in common is that they did not see the deep discussion many of them expected about what is going to happen to U.S. immigration laws under the next administration.
Immigration reform was more a political frisbee than a political football: rather than being tossed around by the campaigns, it sort of hovered over public discourse, dipping to ground level only on occasion. Most of the references to it came in front of immigrant audiences, especially in candidate interviews and commercials on Spanish-language media.
Hispanics received a lot of attention during this fall campaign because of their large numbers in four states once labeled battlegrounds: Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico. Now, the three western states are considered to be leaning towards Barack Obama — and the Democratic candidate held a slight lead in most of the polls conducted in Florida in October. This is in no small part due to the high levels of support Obama has attracted among Hispanics in those states.
While those states saw a deluge of advertising in Spanish, Latinos in other regions were not catered to in such an intense manner. Most Hispanics in the U.S. live in states considered safe for one party or the other –New York and California on the Democratic side, Texas in the Republican column.
Latinos in non-battleground states did not miss much.
The Spanish-language campaign turned quite ugly at times. Both the McCain and Obama campaigns used Hispanic airwaves to accuse the other side of having helped immigration reform fail in Congress, using misleading and sometimes even false charges against each other. While this war of accusations raged on Univision and Telemundo, the candidates barely mentioned immigration in their “mainstream” appearances — from their acceptance speeches at their parties’ conventions to the three presidential debates and the sole vice presidential one.
Other ethnic groups did not have the same strategic value and hence did not attract the same level of attention from the campaigns. At various points in the drawn-out election season, Feet in 2 Worlds reported on groups as varied as Asian Americans, Arab Americans, Ecuadorian, Irish, Haitian, Polish, Russian, Guyanese, and Pakistani immigrants. These and others groups did not see many messages tailored to them — and in some unfortunate cases, they only entered the national debate when they were singled out negatively, as was the case with people of Arab descent.
Whatever the result, immigrant voters are hoping that the new president will support comprehensive reform of a system that is broken.
In this sense, Obama and McCain don’t stand that far apart from each other: both would require that borders be secured before other measures are discussed, they would prosecute employers who hire undocumented workers, and they would then push for a path to legalization for most undocumented immigrants. McCain’s website says they will be able to “follow the path to legal residence,” Obama’s that they will “go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens.”
The reform, however, would need to go through Congress in a difficult time for the economy, when other, urgent matters will be up for discussion. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a worrying sign recently when she warned that Democrats might not push for the legalization of undocumented immigrants after all. The “path to citizenship” might be sacrificed at the altar of bipartisanship, she hinted.
“Maybe there never is a path to citizenship if you came here illegally,” Pelosi told The Associated Press. “I would hope that there could be, but maybe there isn’t.”
Tuesday night –no legal trouble withstanding– the time for soaring campaign rhetoric and hard-hitting attacks will be over. Soon, it will be time for governance, which like reality, is a much more nuanced and complex affair. Immigrant voters, who are widely expected to mobilize in record numbers, will then find out what their effort was worth.