How could we have all gotten it so wrong? On November 8, we were doing a happy dance until we realized Florida and Pennsylvania were too close to call when the polls closed. None of the swing states were swinging our way, and the Rust Belt firewall was crumbling. It all went downhill from there. What a dismal morning!
Now, as this issue of LATINO goes to press, the initial shock has turned to foreboding. The nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and the presence of Kris Kobach on the transition team make it clear that Trump will lead the most anti-immigrant administration since the days of Operation Wetback. There is no silver lining. It’s all bad, amigos.
Some have taken comfort in that our president-elect said he’ll deport only “criminal aliens.” But while it’s not a crime to be undocumented, it is if you’ve re-entered after being deported, or if you falsely claim to be a U.S. citizen (i.e. with a fake ID). So the new Deportation Task Force will cast a very wide net. The result will be more workplace raids, detention centers, and divided familes. Plus it’s almost a certainty that DACA will be rescinded, leaving over three quarters of a million DREAMERS in legal limbo, and in danger of being rounded up as well.
This should come as no surprise to anyone. Equally predictable is the lack of Latino appointments. With the exception of Ted Cruz, whose name was briefly floated for Attorney General, no Latino is apparently being considered for the Cabinet. Anyone expecting Trump to finally pivot and offer us an olive branch has been smoking the drapes at Trump Tower. We’re out in the cold. And we won’t get invited over to the White House for taco bowls on Cinco de Mayo.
Whom should we blame for all this? The finger-pointing has just begun, useful only if we can establish what happened, so it won’t happen again. Certainly Hillary’s Latino outreach, the object of much hype, was little more than that. It still boggles the imagination that a quarter of us voted for Trump (splitting the difference between exit polls and Latino Decisions), and that the Democrats failed to carry Florida. Not enough was done in Texas, though they doubled down on Arizona, and lost. But what difference would it have made? There was indeed a Latino surge in the Southwest, it just wasn’t enough to counter the surge of white voters in the Midwest.
So what’s next? More than casting blame, we need to examine much of the conventional wisdom that has guided our politics. Until three weeks ago, the Republican party was portrayed as a dinosaur about to be made extinct by a multicultural meteor. Now it controls all three branches of government, plus a majority of state houses and legislatures. The myth of the sleeping giant, which made us assume that we would automatically gain political power through population, was a dangerous fallacy. We can no longer take demographics for granted.
The lesson for both Republicans and Democrats in 2016 is that they don’t have to cater to Latino voters. Without any leverage with either party, we’ll have to be more strategic to remain relevant, and choose our battles carefully. We’ve learned who our friends are, as well as our enemies. Nearly half of the U.S. electorate supported positions like mass deportation and building a wall to be paid by Mexico. We aren’t going anywhere and neither are they. So we need to engage them, understand them, and make sure they understand us.
That’s the challenge facing our Latino leadership, who will soon be put to the test. Many have taken a “wait and see” approach, giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. Most Latinos are happy to bury the hatchet, since Trump is the one who wielded it. But wouldn’t this normalize all that’s come before, making the same mistake as the media? The office of the president deserves our respect, but its occupant must earn it. No one is expecting an apology from Trump, nor is one forthcoming. What, then, should we demand?
To earn our respect, he must do two things: First, Latinos must be represented not just in the Cabinet but in the White House and at all levels of government. Second, Trump must put in place a humane immigration policy that will protect the rights of millions of undocumented workers. If he doesn’t, and we accept this out of cowardice or careerism, the fault is our own. But leadership is born in adversity, and it will be interesting to see which leaders emerge in this fight. Trump will be a harsh and painful lesson for Latinos. It can also be a valuable one if we take advantage of it.
For the time being, pa’lante. It’s what we do, and what we’ll keep on doing.
Alfredo J. Estrada