The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats learn the hard way: Latino voters don’t care just about immigration

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke during a town hall event hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens on Thursday in Milwaukee. (Sara Stathas/Bloomberg)

MILWAUKEE — As the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights organization gathered here this week for its annual convention, anxiety over immigration issues could hardly have been higher.

The horror of babies confined in squalid, overcrowded detention centers along the southern border continued. President Trump had gone to the brink of ordering that a citizenship question be added to the 2020 Census, before backing down. And undocumented families across the country were bracing for Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, in which thousands could be rounded up and deported.

On Friday, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) members added another event to their convention agenda: A march to the local office of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who had declined their request to meet while they were in town.

The protesters delivered dolls in cages to Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, whose panel has oversight responsibility for the agencies that are carrying out the border detention program.

But when four Democratic presidential contenders appeared at a LULAC forum the night before, the majority of questions they were asked had nothing to do with any of this. The topics were culled from submissions by 3,300 LULAC members and reflected the full spectrum of the concerns that shape their daily lives.

Follow Karen Tumulty's opinionsFollow

Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro was quizzed about the high cost of college tuition. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) promised that if she were elected, mental illness would get the same coverage as other medical problems. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was challenged to explain how he would persuade a broad swath of the electorate to support his proposal to eliminate private health insurance. And Beto O’Rourke was asked to explain how he would reinvigorate the middle class.

None of this was a surprise to O’Rourke, who is a former congressman from El Paso, a city that is nearly 80 percent Hispanic. “Immigration is obviously not the only issue, nor should it be the defining issue,” he said after the session. “I’ve learned that every single issue is important to the Latino community.”

More unexpected was an undercurrent of unease here that the Democratic Party, in its revulsion over Trump’s harsh policies and obnoxious rhetoric, is positioning itself too far to the left on immigration.

While the Democrats hold an enormous electoral advantage with Hispanic voters, their turnout has traditionally lagged that of other ethnic groups. But last November’s midterms saw a 50 percent increase in Latino participation compared with the midterm elections four years earlier.

Despite expectations that Latinos will be a crucial constituency in 2020, LULAC President Domingo Garcia told me that he thinks Democratic candidates made a mistake at a recent presidential debate. All 10 candidates who were onstage for the second night of debate raised their hands to show they would support providing government health coverage to people who are in the country illegally. Most of the others who are running have also said they would support that idea.

Given the fact that many U.S. citizens — a disproportionate number of them Hispanic — still lack coverage, “that was not a good general-election position to begin with, and it does not win them many votes in the Latino community,” Garcia said.

It also represents a sharp shift from a decade ago. When President Barack Obama pledged during a 2009 speech to Congress that his health program would not cover undocumented immigrants, a Republican congressman from South Carolina shouted: “You lie!

Now, Garcia said, he worries that both parties are “pandering to their extremes.”

Nor is he the only Latino leader concerned that Democrats could be creating political problems for themselves as they move into new territory on immigration.

Of late, there has been a rush to call for decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings, after that issue became a flash point between Castro and O’Rourke during the first presidential debate. O’Rourke argued that there are other ways to prevent family separations; Castro later chided that his fellow Texan “needs to do his homework.”

Cecilia Muñoz, who was a top Obama White House aide, told my Post colleagues that even having that discussion is playing into Trump’s hands.

“It allows him to make a claim that he is already making, which is Democrats are for an open border,” she said. “And it makes it harder to explain why that is not true.”

Trump has ceded the moral ground on immigration, and though he surely did not intend to, has also awakened the nation’s awareness of the forces of desperation that drive so many to risk so much to come to this country.

But Latino voters want — and deserve — to hear more from the candidates than they have thus far. Not just about how to solve the crisis at the border, but how to make life better for everyone who is already here.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Wake up, Democrats. Trump is on something of a roll.

Jeh Charles Johnson: Trump-era politics are drowning out consensus on immigration. It’s time for some straight talk.

Greg Sargent: Awful new Trump cruelties just emerged. Where are the Democrats?

Fareed Zakaria: Democrats must address the roots of our asylum crisis — or give Trump the advantage