It’s no coincidence that some of the harshest anti-immigration laws have taken root in the South. These states are reacting not necessarily to the presence of the Latino population but to their growth. At the local level the Republican Party has taken the lead on such measures. And at the national level the GOP presidential field has echoed such reactionary stances so as to secure primary state delegates. Latinos nationally and in the South in particular have become a piñata for the Republican Party.
The 2010 mid-term election demonstrated that immigration issues could be a potent political force within the GOP. Candidates across the country, and in particular in the South came into office by espousing harsh anti-immigration policies. Nathan Deal, who was elected Georgia’s governor made good on his promise to address immigration and in May 2011 signed HB 37 into law, a bill similar to Arizona’s SB 1070 which even goes a step further in penalizing persons who transport undocumented persons. Soon after Alabama and South Carolina passed a similar bill.
Two years later, in the 2012 election, Republican candidates are again returning to the anti-immigrant platform to mobilize the base. The Republican presidential candidates in particular have taken this route. Even Newt Gingrich who espouses the least harsh anti-immigrant line has fueled this platform by remaining silent on state-level anti-immigrant initiatives. As the primary season starts to wind itself through the South Latinos will be front and center but not as potential voters to mobilize but as a group to mobilize against. And going into the general election an anti-immigrant piñata will once again become the GOP’s preferred party favor.
The reason this anti-immigrant wave is not rallying people to fight is because the number of Latinos in the South is still relatively small compared to the established communities in the Southwest and Northeast. For example, in California there are over 14 million Latinos while in Oklahoma there about a quarter of a million. However, while California’s Latino population from 2000-2010 grew by 29% the Latino population in Oklahoma grew by 144%. The South in general has experienced the fastest growth of any region and the deep South and Southern Midwest have witnessed by far the highest rates, such as Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
The fire has been able to rage partly because of the mood within the Republican Party but also because of the youth of the Latino political voice in these areas. At the electoral level, the South is home to a very young and largely foreign-born population that does not have access to the ballot and have little force currently to counter-rest anti-immigrant legislation.
The lack of a formal political voice for Latinos in the South will not last long. Sheer demographic growth will see the number of voting age Latinos grow throughout the next decade. The demand for Latino labor will also not subside and states will not be able to incur the productivity loss that anti-immigrant bills bring. In other words, the political piñata party will not last long in light of the unstoppable forces of economic and demographic growth in the South.
Victoria Defrancesco Soto