Hispanic voters played a critical role in electing Barack Obama the 44th president, delivering key swing states to the Democrats in a presidential election in which immigration did not ultimately become a contentious issue.
Sixty-seven percent of Hispanic voters voted for Obama while only 31 percent voted for Republican candidate John McCain, according to an exit-poll analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center.
These results contrast sharply with the 2004 presidential election, in which just 50 percent of Hispanic voters supported Democratic candidate John Kerry, while between 40 and 44 percent of Hispanic voters voted for Republican George W. Bush.
The support of Hispanic voters was important in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida — states that went Republican in 2004 but Democratic in 2008.
An estimated 76 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama in Nevada, as did 69 percent of Hispanic voters in New Mexico, 61 percent of Hispanic voters in Colorado, and 57 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida, where Cuban Americans have long voted Republican. The 2008 election was the first on record in which a majority of Hispanic voters in Florida voted for the Democratic presidential candidate.
Nationwide, roughly 10 million Hispanics voted in the 2008 presidential election, about 28 percent more than the 7.8 million Hispanics who voted in 2004.
Experts agree that concerns over immigration policy motivated many Hispanic and other "New American" voters (naturalized citizens and the U.S. citizen children of immigrants) to become engaged in the 2008 elections.
Following a series of rallies in support of immigration reform in 2006, immigrant advocacy organizations launched voter-registration drives and naturalization campaigns. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimates that 1,051,640 immigrants became U.S. citizens between October 2007 and October 2008, a record for the agency that is attributable also partly to the agency raising citizenship-application fees in July 2007.
Most experts believe that Obama and McCain's positions on immigration did not play a significant role in drawing Hispanic voters away from McCain and toward Obama, as the two candidates held similar positions on immigration reform. They attribute McCain's poor showing among Hispanics to the fact that other Republican politicians were seen as promoting anti-immigrant sentiment. These analysts also believe that the Republican Party's political stance cost the party Hispanic voters even in the 2006 congressional elections.
Although some predicted immigration would become a "wedge issue" in the 2008 election, the economic crisis and health-care reform dominated the three presidential debates and the candidates' stump speeches. Both candidates ran television ads in Spanish accusing the other of blocking comprehensive immigration reform, but English-language advertisements contained no references to the immigration issue.
Even though immigration did not figure prominently in the presidential race, it remained a heated and controversial issue in several state and local races.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton known nationwide for his campaign against illegal immigration, lost his bid to unseat longtime Congressman Paul Kanjorski (52 to 48 percent) in the state's 11th district.
However, in Arizona, Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff known for his tough anti-illegal-immigration stance, won reelection by a landslide. Also in Arizona, voters rejected Proposition 202, which would have scaled back some of the provisions of an Arizona law aimed at preventing the employment of unauthorized immigrants.
While Hispanic voters proved to be critical, it remains to be seen whether such support will put pressure on the new president to push for immigration reform. But the pressure may not even be a factor. Many Hispanic leaders believe that toward the end of the race, other issues like the economy and health care became more important to Hispanics.
Moreover, given the new economic climate, most observers believe Congress is unlikely to enact any type of large-scale immigration reform in the next year.
Supreme Court to Rule on "Identity Theft" and Political Asylum for Persecutors
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether an unauthorized immigrant using another person's social security number could be found to have committed "aggravated identity theft" if the immigrant did not know that the number was assigned to a real person. The Supreme Court also heard oral arguments last week on whether political asylum can be granted to someone who participated in the persecution of others, but did so under duress.
In Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., petitioner Ignacio Flores-Figueroa argues that he should not have been charged with aggravated identity theft because he did not know that the social security number that he used was already assigned to a real person.
Under the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in July 2004, individuals who are found to "knowingly transfer, possess, or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person" can receive a two-year prison sentence. The circuit courts are split as to whether the law can be used to punish someone who did not know that he or she was using a social security number previously assigned.
The political asylum case Negusie v. Mukasey involves a former guard of an Eritrean prison where inmates were tortured. An immigration judge found that the guard would face persecution if he returned to Eritrea, but the judge denied him asylum because U.S. law bars granting asylum to someone who has previously participated in the persecution of others on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group, or political opinion.
The Supreme Court will decide whether the acts conducted under duress are exempted from the "persecutor bar" for political-asylum applicants.
DHS Responds to Court Ruling on "No-Match" Letters with New Rule
The Department of Homeland Security has issued a supplemental final rule on Social Security "no-match" letters that seeks to provide more detailed justification for the advice it gives employers.
The supplemental rule is in response to a federal court's concerns that the initial rule on the subject, issued in August 2007, failed to provide justification. Because of those concerns, a federal court blocked the rule in October 2007.
The August 2007 rule advised employers to terminate employees identified in the "no-match" letter if the employees could not correct the problem within 90 days. Although a "no-match" is sometimes caused by a clerical error within the Social Security Administration database, it can also occur when an unauthorized immigrant presents fraudulent documents to an employer.
Critics hold that the new DHS rule is substantially the same as the August 2007 version. Further litigation on the issue is expected.
Policy Beat in Brief
Agriprocessors Case. Agriprocessors Incorporated, the Iowa meatpacking company where federal immigration agents arrested close to 400 immigrant workers last May, filed for bankruptcy in November, a week after CEO Sholom Rubashkin was arrested and the state of Iowa fined the company nearly $10 million for various labor violations. Rubashkin was charged with conspiracy to harbor unauthorized immigrants for profit and aiding and abetting document fraud. Labor violations included charging workers for their own uniforms and withholding back wages. The Iowa attorney general has also brought charges against Agriprocessors for violating child labor laws.
New Visa Waiver Program Countries. Seven countries will be added to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) by the end of November, DHS announced in late October. Citizens of South Korea, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia will be allowed to enter the United States for business or tourism for up to 90 days without presenting a visa. Currently, 27 countries from Europe and Asia are enrolled in the program.
Julie Myers Resignation. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Secretary Julie Myers announced her resignation on November 5 and left the position as of November 15. ICE Deputy Assistant Secretary John Torres will run the agency during the presidential transition. Myers had led the agency since 2005, but the Senate did not confirm her appointment until December of 2007 due to concerns over her lack of experience and insufficient commitment to targeting employers of unauthorized immigrants. High-profile workplace raids and fugitive operations gained prominence during her tenure. ICE is the largest investigative component of DHS.
New Case-Management System at USCIS. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will convert to an electronic case-management system over the next five years to reduce backlogs and processing delays and to allow government officials from various agencies to more easily access immigration records. USCIS has contracted with IBM for the new system, made possible by increased fees USCIS instituted in 2007.
H-1B Fraud. The current H-1B temporary-visa system has a "significant vulnerability" for fraud, according to a new report from USCIS's Office of Fraud Detection and National Security. The report, which examined 246 H-1B visa applications, found that approximately 21 percent of the applications were either fraudulent or contained technical violations. Under the current H-1B visa system, U.S. companies can sponsor high-skilled foreign-born workers for H-1B visas. H-1B visa holders include accountants, engineers, and computer technicians.
State and Local Policy Beat in Brief
Proposition 202 in Arizona. Arizona voters rejected an amendment to the Legal Arizona Workers Act that would have made it harder for the government to shut down a business that hired unauthorized workers. Proponents said Proposition 202 would provide necessary safeguards for employers who were trying to follow the law. Opponents said it would make it harder to prosecute employers who routinely hire unauthorized workers. The Legal Arizona Workers Act, which took effect on January 1, 2007, requires all Arizona employers to participate in the federal E-Verify system and revokes the business licenses of employers who "knowingly" hire unauthorized workers.
Texas Driver's Licenses. Unauthorized immigrants will no longer be able to obtain driver's licenses in Texas because of a new policy from the Texas Department of Public Safety that went into effect on October 1. All noncitizens in Texas will have to provide proof of legal status when applying for a driver's license. Previously, unauthorized residents could obtain driver's licenses by presenting proof of identity and residence in Texas and swearing under oath that they were not eligible for a social security number. Agency officials have stated that the new policy was instituted to better protect Texans against identity theft. Those who oppose the new rules have criticized the fact that an administrative agency instituted the policy without input from legislators.