Viewpoint: The Power of the Asian and Latino Vote

Asians and Latinos made key differences in battleground states, driven by a common desire for immigration reform.

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Las Estellitas, a Mexican restaurant in Chicago, is turned into a polling station on Nov. 6, 2012

The Nov. 6 election signaled a demographic tipping point: a record number of Latino and Asian voters, the country’s fastest-growing voting blocs, formed a coalition with black and white Democratic voters to re-elect the country’s first African-American President. A new American majority — a multiethnic majority — has not only arrived but is in fact reordering the political landscape.

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The election’s results also represent a turning point — a defining moment — for immigration, an issue that was barely discussed in the final months of the campaign yet surely played an outsize role in turning out voters, particularly Asians and Latinos.

In a close contest in which every vote counted, Asians and Latinos made the difference in key states. An influx of Asian voters in Virginia helped Obama carry that swing state. Exit polls show that in the battleground states of Nevada, Colorado and Florida, Latino voters clinched the win for the President. Though the economy and the budget deficit were key issues of concern for Latinos and Asians — as they are with all voting blocs — immigration was near the top of the list.

That’s because immigration is a personal issue. According to Latino Vote 2012, which analyzed turnout in states with sizable Hispanic electorates, a majority of Latino voters say they personally know someone who is undocumented. That’s not a surprise, given that millions of undocumented people live in what’s called a mixed-status family. At least 17 million people who are legally living in the U.S. have at least one undocumented immigrant in their family, as reported by the Pew Hispanic Center. Furthermore, about 4.5 million U.S.-citizen children and young adults have at least one undocumented parent.

So when Mitt Romney consistently called undocumented people “illegals” — a dehumanizing and pejorative term, considered a slur in immigrant communities — during the primary and general campaigns, he was referring to someone’s mother, someone’s brother, someone’s friend or classmate. And that someone may have voted.

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I, for one, belong in a mixed-status family; I am the only undocumented person in my large, extended Filipino family. All day on Nov. 6, my grandmother (who raised me), in addition to my aunts, uncles and cousins, called or texted to say that they voted on my behalf. The calls and texts did not come just from my Filipino family. My network of educators, friends and classmates — the people who supported and protected me as an undocumented student and later as an undocumented worker — also reached out and said they too voted on my behalf.

And I and others like me, in turn, encouraged others to vote. Led by undocumented youth known as Dreamers — named after the Dream Act, the more than decade-old legislation that would grant a path to citizenship for children who were schooled and grew up in the U.S. — there was a concerted effort to urge voters to turn out, especially in Nevada, Florida and Colorado. This was part of the winning strategy in Maryland, which became the first state to pass a version of the Dream Act at the ballot box. Across the country, in the months leading up to the election, Dreamers made phone calls and knocked on doors to make sure American citizens did not take their privilege of voting for granted.

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Together, undocumented people like me and our relatives, friends and allies wait for broader immigration reform, not just for Dreamers but also for undocumented workers of all ages and backgrounds who contribute to our economic security and prosperity. Now is the time to come up with a fair, bipartisan and sensible solution to our immigration problem. When Obama spoke of “reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges” facing the country in his victory speech, “fixing our immigration system” was among four issues he listed. For the sake of our country, reform must happen, sooner rather than later. I hope President Obama will make sure of it.

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