Many Democrats are lying awake at night fretting over the possibility of losing critical midterm races due to depressed Latino turnout. Interchangeable headlines declaring “Democrats have a Latino problem” recently appeared in outlets including New York Magazine, CNN and The Washington Post.
The Latino problem worrying Democrats this election cycle is a recurring theme that has scared many political insiders in recent memory. And though I’m not eligible to vote myself, it’s something that keeps me up at night, too: With Republicans so quick to display how much they hate Latinos and immigrants, why hasn’t the Democratic Party cracked the code on how to properly court us as voters and supporters?
As it stands, Democrats have done a good job distancing themselves from much of the racist and xenophobic rhetoric that Donald Trump has been using ever since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. There are tweets condemning Trump’s cruel family separation policy, videos of visits to immigration detention centers, and pledges to defend core values that are important to Latino families residing in the United States.
But as Democrats continue to define what they are for and against in the Trump era, they fail to adequately address the issues that really matter to us.
Evidence of a lack of investment in Latino outreach and infrastructure can be found by taking a look at immigration issues. For years (if not decades), Democrats and their allies have had to be convinced time and time again that immigration reform is a sizable and worthwhile investment that will translate to political support or votes in the long term. But we’ve still yet to see any significant victory on the subject, even after candidates have finally started prioritizing immigration in recent years.
Many Democratic candidates need Latino voters to turn out in droves if they want to win their competitive races (even in blue states like California), yet Latino outreach and strategy is often a secondary or last-minute pitch. Democrats are even at risk of losing Texas’ 23rd District, where the population is 70 percent Latino. This is mainly due to the fact that Democrats are currently focused on recruiting their traditional base while simultaneously courting independents and moderate Republicans. Missing from this picture? New and existing Latino voters, who are often deemed low-propensity voters (individuals who inconsistently participate in elections).
Democrats seeking the Latino vote have big hurdles to jump. They haven’t yet figured out this country is made up of millions of immigrants who work hard, who contribute to the U.S. economy, who aren’t going anywhere, and who ― in many cases ― will eventually become eligible voters. Serious conversations about issues that impact Latinos (particularly immigrant families currently being threatened with all manner of policies and threats under the Trump administration) are often scarce or modeled after a handpicked set of issues, like education and immigration, as if those are the only issues we care about.
Until Democrats learn to speak to Latinos in a way that doesn’t pigeonhole us as a homogeneous group, they risk falling into the same trap as they have in previous years. Soft promises on legislation, Spanish language one-liners, and a few Latino surrogates simply won’t be enough to convince Latino voters to show up again for Democrats. As Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine put it, not even the “specter” of Trump was enough to scare Latinos into mobilizing during the 2016 election.
Political professionals and pundits regularly question why the Latino community doesn’t rush to the polls for Democratic candidates, as if eligible Latino voters are lazy and shiftless. Instead, they should be questioning Democrats’ lack of genuine and sustained concern for the issues Latino voters face ― and why candidates are offering so little to constituents working furiously to make ends meet and keep their families together.
The failures of the Democratic Party (and those who cater to its candidates every election cycle) when it comes to Latino voters rest in its lack of forward-facing vision. Until Democrats enshrine issues like immigration reform into the core of their “progressive” values and learn how to talk ― honestly and truthfully ― about the complex issues affecting Latinos, I fear the party will continue to be disappointed by our civic participation.
I’ll be watching the election returns in hopes that candidates who claim to care about families like mine will win public office. But if Democrats see yet another election go by with low Latino voter turnout, it’ll be because they continue to bank on the idea that Latinos will show up simply due to the GOP’s nativist and discriminatory values ― not because Democrats themselves put the work in to earn our votes.
Juan Escalante is an immigrant advocate and online strategist who has been fighting for the Dream Act and pro-immigration policies at all levels of government for the past 10 years.