Give Us Your Well-Off
Kenneth C. Burt
February 08, 2007
Kenneth C. Burt is the political director of the California Federation of Teachers. Burt worked for California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and is a board member for the Pat Brown Public Policy Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece first appeared in the California Progress Report.
It may be a coincidence, but in the aftermath of Latino voters turning away from Republican congressional candidates, the Bush administration announced a dramatic increase in the cost of becoming a U.S. citizen . Under the new Bush plan, a family of four would have to pay $2,400 to become naturalized citizens. Compare this to the $94 per person cost under President Clinton.
The Bush plan is an outrage. It violates the American credo captured on the Statue of Liberty, which specifically welcomes the “tired and poor.” It also runs counter to both the Biblical command to welcome strangers in our midst and the secular desire to reward those who “play by the rules” in becoming new Americans.
There also appears to be a partisan overlay to the change in public policy. Just as Republicans in key swing states eagerly sought to prevent former felons from voting as a way to reduce African-American turnout, it appears that increasing the cost to become a citizen will have the effect of reducing the number of new Latino voters. This is significant because under Bush the Republican Party has reached out to Latino voters. Bush appointed Latinos to his administration and he proposed immigration reform (backed by big business but opposed to by xenophobic interests in his party).
Latinos have followed a pattern similar to that of Irish and Italian immigrants before them. New arrivals are brought into the political process by Democrats who champion working family issues and seek to empower societal minorities.
It is not surprising that Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to actively seek Latino voters. In the 1930s and 1940s, Latinos were (a small) part of the quarter of the U.S. population that was either “foreign born” or the children of immigrants. Republicans typically courted Latinos only after a sector of the community had started to move into the middle class. President Eisenhower courted Latino voters in the 1950s, focusing on small businessmen, professionals and Protestants.
This trend continued into the 1960s. John F. Kennedy brought thousands of new voters into the system. He encouraged large scale voter registration drives among Puerto Ricans in New York and Mexican Americans in California. "Viva Kennedy" clubs established themselves in two-dozen states.
President Richard Nixon followed up on this. In 1971, he appointed Ramona Bañuelos, a Los Angeles tortilla manufacturer, as treasurer of the United States. Nixon was also the first presidential candidate to raise a significant amount of campaign money from Latinos.
Accordingly, the basic parameters of national Latino politics were set. Democrats welcomed new voters and sought to drive Latinos to the polls. Republicans courted segments of the community that were most likely to support its business-oriented agenda.
Bush sought to change the dynamic by creating a softer image as a “compassionate conservative,” who as a Texan understood the Latino family-oriented community. He also learned from Pete Wilson, his Republican counterpart in California, who sought to deny education and health care for children without documents. Wilson’s support for the infamous Proposition 187 proved that a lot a middle class Latinos object to what is perceived as a general attack on the community. In the immediate aftermath of Proposition 187, more than a million immigrants went through the process to become citizens—to become eligible to vote.
President Clinton, seeking Democratic votes in California, reduced the bureaucratic backlog in processing citizenship applications. For him, good politics was also good public policy.
This brings us back to Bush. His effort to create an economic burden to citizenship is eerily similar to the Texas poll tax. This policy, practiced into the 1960s, literally required Texas voters to pay for the privilege of casting a ballot.
In America, every vote counts equally, regardless of one’s social position. This is central to our democracy. Bush’s new tax on citizenship threatens this cherished notion and must be vigorously rejected.