Tucson Citizen
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Economy, not immigration, top issue for Hispanics

Latino support of Democrats depends on their position on traditional issues like education, health care.

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Top congressional Democrats who have proposed legalizing millions of illegal immigrants are betting that millions of Hispanic voters will view immigration as a make-or-break issue in this year's presidential election.
But their strategy, formally unveiled yesterday, may do little if anything to sway the opinions of the 7 million Hispanic voters expected to cast ballots in November, according to political analysts and survey results.

In a poll of 800 Hispanics released in late January, immigration ranked fourth out of five on a list of the most important issues facing the country. About 30 percent of those polled named the economy as most important, compared to 15 percent who cited immigration.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. It was conducted by Bendixen & Associates, a Florida-based polling company that regularly tracks the opinions of Hispanics.

Immigration represents a "symbolic" issue for most Hispanics, said Sergio Bendixen, president of the polling company.

Louis DeSipio, a political science professor who has written extensively about Hispanic issues, said Hispanics typically share the concerns of non-Hispanic Americans.

"Traditional issues - education, health care, the economy - trump immigration as more pressing matters for most Hispanics," said DeSipio, who teaches at the University of California at Irvine. "What will encourage more Latinos to support Democrats will be the party's position on these traditional issues."

Top Democrats don't disagree, but they believe immigration resonates with a large bloc of Hispanic voters. They plan to highlight the differences between their bill and a guest-worker proposal pushed by President Bush.

Under Bush's plan, which he outlined in January, millions of illegal immigrants would receive temporary legal status for six years or longer. But they would not be eligible for permanent residency.

Under the Democrats' bill - dubbed The Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas and Enforcement Act (SOLVE Act) - most of the nation's estimated 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants would be legalized.

Up to 350,000 foreigners also would be allowed to work here with temporary visas and would eventually be allowed to remain here permanently.

"Unlike President Bush's concept, which is unworkable and a pathway to deportation, our legislation provides a pathway to the American Dream," said Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

Administration officials say Bush's plan is workable and represents a reasonable compromise between those who want to shut the country's doors to immigrants and those who want to swing the doors wide open. Bush's plan hasn't yet been drafted as legislation.

The Democrats' bill, which Congress appears unlikely to act on before the end of the year, is supported by dozens of unions, business groups and ethnic organizations, including some of the nation's top Hispanic groups, the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, said the bill is a critical issue to the nation's Hispanics because "many are immigrants themselves or have petitioned for their family members."

That may be true, but most Hispanic immigrants won't be eligible to vote come November unless they become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Census data from the previous presidential election in 2000 shows that nearly 40 percent of Hispanics were not eligible to vote because they weren't citizens. That left 13.1 million eligible Hispanics of voting age, but only 5.9 million voted.