Is Texas About to Turn Latinos Into Single-Issue Voters?

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In the days after the November election in 2020, I traveled from Laredo, Texas, down along the Rio Grande into one of the great heartlands of Mexican America, a place locals proudly refer to by its area code, “the 956.” Along this stretch of the Texas border, towns are up to 98 percent Latino; Spanish is so common that Anglos have to learn the language if they want to order at restaurants. Yet on Election Night, residents had shocked the country by turning out for Donald Trump in record numbers.

In Zapata County, where Trump became the first Republican to win the presidential vote since Warren Harding in 1920, I asked Cynthia Villarreal, a longtime Democratic organizer, what explained Trump’s success after four years of immigration raids and family separation. Villarreal told me that, in South Texas, many Mexican Americans don’t identify as immigrants; her own ancestors lived on the Rio Grande before Texas even existed. In Starr County, where Trump had almost quadrupled Republican turnout, the then–county chair of the GOP, a retired colonel named Ross Barrera, said that he and many other Latinos in Texas wanted a border wall. He felt pity, but no solidarity, for those crossing the border; he explained that some South Texans call them mojaditos—Spanish for the slur “wetback.”

Since 2020, Texas politicians have seemed to absorb the lesson that many Latinos will tolerate border crackdowns. In early 2021, Republican Governor Greg Abbott sent thousands of state police and National Guardsmen into Texas’s southernmost counties as part of his “Operation Lone Star.” Residents appeared to reward him: Even if the police SUVs and razor wire were an eyesore, in the 2022 governor’s election Abbott improved on his 2018 results in almost every border county.

But soon, Texas Republicans could test just how harsh an immigration policy Latinos really want. In a raucous legislative session last year, the state’s Republican supermajority sent Abbott a monumental bill, S.B. 4. The law, currently on hold in the courts, would essentially give Texas its own immigration system, making “illegal entry”—traditionally enforced by the federal government—into a state crime. If the law goes into effect, a police officer anywhere in the state will be able to stop, question, and arrest anyone they suspect might have crossed the Rio Grande illegally. Judges will be able to coerce defendants to auto-deport to Mexico by threatening them with serious prison time.

S.B. 4 would go far beyond Operation Lone Star, potentially moving immigration enforcement into the state’s interior. Razor wire along the river is meant to control who gets into the state; policing cities such as Dallas and Houston is about getting people out. Will the Latinos in Texas who have welcomed Republicans’ border crackdown feel the same way if state police start arresting their neighbors?

The history here looks grim for the GOP. When Republicans in California and Arizona tried to create the same sort of “show me your papers” system—California’s Proposition 187 and Arizona’s S.B. 1070—the measures backfired. Both laws reeked of racial profiling. People who were around in each state, including my father in California, have told me stories from those years. In Latino neighborhoods, many people came to see the laws not as immigration policy, but as a population control: an attempt to make their state less Latino. They responded by organizing into coalitions that eventually eroded Republican power in both states—and perhaps gave birth to the popular assumption that Latinos vote mostly on immigration.

In California, my father was one of the people for whom Prop. 187 fundamentally changed the way they saw themselves and their place in this country. Growing up in a Mexican American family in San Antonio, he didn’t think of himself as an immigrant. Like Villareal’s family, our roots in Texas run deeper than the state, back to when it was called Coahuila y Tejas. And, like Barrera, my dad heard other Mexican kids at his school smear more recent immigrants as mojaditos. When he moved to California in the 1980s, my father thought of himself as a political moderate. He was an entrepreneur and a family man, besides being Mexican by heritage. He voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential race (“Just like everyone else in America,” he joked to me recently).

Things changed when the Republican governor of California, Pete Wilson, championed Prop. 187. California was in the midst of a historic immigration surge, and as many as 1.3 million undocumented immigrants were living in the state; Wilson was flagging in his 1994 reelection bid. The measure passed, and he held on to his office. When the law went into effect, it instructed public employees—not just cops, but teachers, nurses, and anyone else who worked for the state—to report anyone they suspected might be undocumented.

“I had to start thinking: Was the name ‘Herrera’ probable cause?” my dad said. Prop. 187 erased the conceptual difference he might have felt between himself and noncitizens. He came to believe that, no matter how he thought of himself, some people in this country would only ever see him as Mexican, as an outsider. He never voted Republican again.

He wasn’t alone. In 1984, 45 percent of Latinos in California had, like my father, voted for Reagan. By 1996, that support had cratered: More than 71 percent of Latinos voted for Bill Clinton (a 16 percent increase over his own 1992 result). Turnout among Latinos in California also increased dramatically each election year after Prop. 187. New Latino voters were far more likely to register as Democrats; in Los Angeles County, for instance, six times as many Latinos registered with the Democratic Party than the GOP.

Prop. 187 “created a multigenerational, anti-Republican coalition” among Latinos in California, Mike Madrid, the political director of the California Republican Party from 1996 to 1998, told me. Madrid, who grew up in a Mexican American family in Sacramento, spent years trying to get Republican campaigns to understand Latinos’ complexity. He thought then, and still thinks today, that the party’s best chance of courting Latino voters was with a message geared toward the working class, an “aspirational conservatism.” But Prop. 187 essentially turned hundreds of thousands of Latinos into single-issue voters. Today some of the more prominent Latino officials in the country, including the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro and Senator Alex Padilla of California, trace their political roots to their opposition to Prop. 187.

“You can build a multigenerational coalition when a community is perceived to be personally, individually, and as a community under attack,” Madrid said. “If I was naturalized, or my kids were born here, or my grandchildren—everyone came home” to Democrats after Prop. 187. (Madrid clashed with the Republican Party in a very public way when Donald Trump was nominated in 2016.)

Prop. 187 died in the courts; judges ruled that it violated the supremacy clause in the Constitution and infringed on the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over immigration. Almost 15 years would pass before Republicans tried again, this time in Arizona, where Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed S.B. 1070 in 2010. Seeking to stop undocumented immigrants from accessing public services, the law mandated that all immigrants over age 18 carry their “papers” with them at all times, and it empowered cops to arrest anyone caught without proper ID.

Academics are still studying how S.B. 1070 changed Arizona. When the bill passed, the state had not only a Republican governor but two Republican senators. Now a Democrat is in the governor’s mansion, along with one and a half Democrats in the senate (Kyrsten Sinema became an independent in 2022). Since S.B. 1070, turnout has exploded in Latino communities, far outstripping population growth. In 2008, just 291,000 Latinos voted in Arizona. By 2012, turnout had increased to 400,000; by 2016, it was more than 550,000. Voter registration has heavily favored Democrats. According to analysis by Televisa Univision, as of 2022, just 17 percent of Latinos in Arizona are registered as Republican, compared with 44 percent as Democrats and 39 percent as independents.

In 2020, more than 813,000 Latinos showed up to vote in Arizona. While some Latino communities in Arizona saw a rightward shift, it was much more muted than it was in Texas; some areas even shifted left. In all, Latino Arizonans voted overwhelmingly for President Joe Biden, sealing his victory in the state.

Underneath Biden’s win was a large network of activists and a get-out-the-vote infrastructure that had first gotten organized in response to S.B. 1070. Belén Sisa, who immigrated with her parents from Buenos Aires at the age of 6, was in high school when the law passed. “I was homecoming queen, varsity cheerleader—like, the last person you would think would be the undocumented girl,” she told me. On the school bus each morning in Florence, Arizona, she looked out at an ICE detention center that employed some of her classmates’ parents, and imagined getting locked up there.

In the years after the law passed, Sisa and her family saw cities like nearby Mesa become relative “ghost towns” as immigrants left the state in large numbers. Sometimes, her family watched protests, but they were too frightened to join in. When Sisa went to college at Arizona State University, she began meeting other undocumented young people, many of whom had started openly identifying as “Dreamers.” She became part of a group of activists that grew throughout the state, often supporting Democrats’ electoral efforts. By 2020, Sisa herself was working as the national Latino press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the sections of S.B. 1070 that made immigration violations state crimes—though it allowed Arizona police to continue to question the immigration status of the people they stopped or detained. At the time, some wondered whether the Supreme Court had handed a victory to Democrats by keeping part of the law in place, because of how strong Latino opposition to it was.

Sisa recalled having conversations with other Latinos, some of whom had citizenship.“I could say: ‘You’re a lot closer to my situation than you will ever be to people that are white and born here,’” she said.

As any Texan will tell you, things are different down here. Latinos in the state are more socially conservative than their counterparts farther west. Not only do many of them not see themselves as immigrants—many identify as racially white. Across the country, immigrants are also becoming a smaller percentage of the Latino population. It’s tough to predict how S.B. 4 will play out if it goes into effect.

“Unlike, say, people in New York, I think Hispanics in Texas are more open to the idea that we need to close that border and do the right thing,” Jason Villalba, who served as a Republican in the Texas house from 2013 to 2019, told me.

As controversy around S.B. 4 has grown, and connections to laws like Prop. 187 have been drawn, some Republican architects of the bill have begun signaling that they intend for the law to target recent border crossers, not immigrants already living in the state. Texas Solicitor General Aaron Nielson told judges at a hearing last week, “There wouldn’t be probable cause in almost all cases, unless a Texas officer sees somebody crossing the border.” Abbott has been ambiguous: After the law was blocked, he said, “Texas has the legal authority to arrest people coming across the razor-wire barriers on our border.”

But legislators have frequently referred to statewide enforcement. When the Fort Worth chief of police released a video in March arguing that immigration enforcement should be left to the feds, Dade Phelan, the speaker of the Texas house, wrote on X: “Any local law enforcement agency that refuses to enforce Senate Bill 4 is abandoning their sworn duty to uphold the rule of law.” State Senator Charles Perry, the author of the bill, has said in interviews that Texas essentially was forced to pass S.B. 4, because of what lawmakers see as inaction by the Biden administration. The Constitution makes exceptions to federal supremacy during times of “invasion,” and Perry and other Republicans argue that migration constitutes an invasion, one that the feds have failed to prevent. “We’re not challenging federal supremacy. We’re saying you got supremacy. You just chose not to do anything with it. We’re going to take that role for you,” Perry told conservative news site The Texan. (Perry did not respond to an interview request.)

Villalba, the former Republican lawmaker, told me he is a believer in border security; for him, and for many other Latinos in Texas, the fact that the state wants more of a say in what happens on its own border makes sense. “But this is different,” he said about S.B. 4. “On a Saturday afternoon, when I take my son to go play hockey, and I’m wearing a baseball cap, and, you know, and a T-shirt that might not be as clean and crisp as I normally wear, and I have brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin, are they going to do that to me”—ask for his papers—“in front of my son?”

Deep south in the Rio Grande Valley, Tania Chavez is the executive director of LUPE, a direct-aid organization founded by the labor-rights icon Cesar Chavez (no relation). She and her team have spent months running “know your rights” clinics for community members to help them prepare for S.B. 4. She said she has talked with parents about what will happen if they get arrested. “Who’s going to take legal guardianship of their kids? … Who else is listed on your bank account? … What is going to happen to your property? Those are all the things that we’re planning and thinking,” she told me. At one recent meeting, Chavez said she saw something she hadn’t seen before: Two groups of young people had driven all the way from Houston and Corpus Christi to join.

“We’re starting to see a lot of new faces,” she said.

On March 19, the Supreme Court briefly allowed S.B. 4 to go into effect, sending the law back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where judges issued a new injunction less than 24 hours later. Oral arguments are ongoing, and Texas’s defense has gotten less vociferous. Last week, Nielson, Texas’s lawyer, told judges: “Now, to be fair, maybe Texas went too far. And that’s the question this court is going to have to decide.”

But, during those few hours the law was in effect, I felt an alien thought cross my mind as I sat in my home in Austin: Should I start carrying my passport? I won’t exaggerate how worried I felt; I’m insulated by citizenship and light-beige skin. Just having that thought, however, made me dissociate: It was like someone else had forced the worry into my brain.

It’s a species of fear many people live with daily. In the Rio Grande Valley, Chavez spent two decades of her life undocumented; she knows what it’s like driving to work each day wondering if a broken taillight will bring her time in this country to an end. She said that feeling is what gets many young citizens engaged in organizing in the Valley.

But when asked if she thinks S.B. 4 might change the minds of Latinos who aren’t immigrants, who have so far supported Texas’s border crackdown, Chavez was dubious.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen until those people start getting arrested,” she said.

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