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Beyond Supreme Court ruling: Romney, Obama, and America don't get Hispanics

Hispanic-Americans comprise the fastest growing electorate in the country and possibly the most misunderstood. Their views on the Arizona immigration law (SB 1070), which the Supreme Court upheld in part with its ruling today, exemplify the complex contours of Hispanic voters.

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Leticia Ramirez, Jovana Renteria, and Puente Movement Comunication Director B. Loewe react to the US Supreme Court decision regarding the controversial Arizona immigration law, SB1070, in Phoenix June 25. Op-ed contributor Ivan Kenneally says: 'All Americans should take notice of the contest for Hispanic-American voters, partly because of their inexorably growing influence and impact, and partly because their plight is a microcosm of our national identity as a whole.'

Matt York/AP

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As the national polls tighten, President Obama and Mitt Romney are redoubling their efforts to reach the increasingly crucial Hispanic electorate. Pitted against one another like dueling suitors, both addressed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials last week, each attempting to woo this voter-rich demographic.

But despite aggressive efforts on both sides of the political divide to win their allegiance, many politicians – and Americans in general – don't understand the complex contours of Hispanic voters in America.

For example: The Supreme Court handed down its ruling on the controversial Arizona immigration law (SB1070) today, affirming key parts of the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision to uphold the law and also overturning others. It might strike many as surprising that 47 percent of Hispanics support the controversial Arizona law that targets illegal immigration, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.

And yet a new poll from Latino Decisions found that a majority of Latino voters in five battleground states believe a Supreme Court ruling that upholds Arizona's immigration law will contribute to an “anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic environment” in the United States.

Hispanic-Americans comprise the fastest growing electorate in the country and possibly the most misunderstood. As a result, they are bombarded with mixed signals from the two parties that vie for their loyalty, simultaneously courted for citizenship and threatened with expulsion. It is unusual that the guests of honor at a grand ball are persistently reminded that they weren't invited in the first place. But we are in the midst of an election season and this is a political ball, where unusual makes it home.

The problem begins with the label “Hispanic” itself, manufactured by Congress in 1976 to be an umbrella term that applies to all Americans of Spanish descent. Such an indiscriminate classification glosses over the substantive cultural differences between the ethnicities it covers. (Eight Latin countries can boast having a million or more people originally from their shores now living in the US as citizens).

Even more important, the term Hispanic doesn't resonate with the people it is meant to capture. According to a study issued by the Pew Hispanic Center in April, only 24 percent of Hispanic-Americans use the pan-ethnic terms Latino or Hispanic to describe their identity. And 21 percent of the Pew respondents simply prefer the term “American.”

In fact, 51 percent of Hispanic-Americans anchor their ethnic identity in their or their family’s country of origin (Cuban, Mexican, etc.), and 69 percent believe Latinos in the US have many different cultures rather than a common, shared culture.

The term “Hispanic” is simply a bureaucratic contrivance that relieves politicians from the hard work of understanding their diverse constituencies, a kind of legislatively sanctioned stereotype. So much for the sensitivity of American multiculturalism.

The consequence of perpetuating a monochromatic caricature of the Latino community (and generally, these voters are indifferent to the use of “Latino” or “Hispanic”) is that nuanced, multivalent issues get reduced to their most binary iterations. For example, sober conversation about immigration reform has largely been preempted by calcified sloganeering: The choices are labeled either permissive amnesty or aggressive expulsion.

So what, if anything, can we say about this burgeoning demographic as a whole?

Both parties are right to appeal to Hispanics on economic grounds since 55 percent of them come to this country in search of greater economic opportunity. However, Democrats overestimate how aggrieved they feel: Over half of Hispanics report that they view themselves as just as successful as other ethnic groups, and only 22 percent view themselves as less successful.

Hispanics generally have an optimistic picture of the US in comparison to their countries of origin, with 87 percent believing it is economically superior to their native countries. And while they care deeply about the plight of the economically disenfranchised, especially since so many of them hail from their ranks, 69 percent think the US treats the poor better than the country they've migrated from.

And before anyone draws the inference that this sensitivity to poverty means Hispanics embrace social welfare, 75 percent of them say hard work will lead to success (in contrast to 58 percent of the general public). Hispanics take seriously the moral obligations the government has to the poor, but not as a substitute for personal responsibility.

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