Cuban immigrants account for less than 1 per cent of the US population, but they are uniquely poised by the US immigration system to receive power and status that, in just one generation, can produce a candidate — or two — ready to enter the political scene on a national level.
That’s why, though most Hispanics lean Democrat, though they are the largest minority population in the US, and though Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign should be a Hispanic recruitment coup for the Democratic party, it’s not actually surprising that the two Hispanic frontrunners in the presidential race, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are both Republicans.
When pollsters say the vast majority of Hispanics lean Democrat, they’re speaking of Mexican Americans, who make up the largest group of Hispanics by a landslide. Nearly two-thirds of Hispanic Americans — 64 per cent — are of Mexican descent. Sixty-five per cent of those, or 22.3 million, are US-born. Hispanics of Mexican origin make up 11 per cent of the US population. But Mexican and Cuban immigrants have had vastly different experiences immigrating to this country.
When Cubans are caught entering the US without documentation, they’re granted refuge if they have at least one foot on US soil. Before 1980, when both Marco Rubio’s parents and Ted Cruz’s father arrived in the country, any Cuban could receive political refuge in the US even if they were rescued at sea. A year after arriving, those Cuban immigrants could apply for permanent residency and eventually US citizenship. Think about that the next time you hear Ted Cruz’s father Rafael bragging about coming to the US legally.
Immigration policy is just the beginning of the Cuban immigrant’s advantage in the US. During Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which lasted until 2008, US banks pioneered small business loans for Cuban exiles who had no credit or collateral in this country. With that start-up capital, Cuban immigrants were uniquely set up by the American establishment to succeed financially. Their neighbourhoods and communities were able to develop robust economic and political systems to support the success of newer Cuban immigrants. Their descendants had a fast track to join the American elite.
Legacy of discrimination
As a result, according to the Pew Research Centre, compared with the rest of the Hispanic population in the US, Cubans have a higher level of education, higher median household income and higher rate of home ownership.
Mexican Americans, on the other hand, inherit a legacy of discrimination that goes back to the founding of this country. The highly controversial Mexican American war , which secured Texas, California and the land in between for the US, is acknowledged by historians to be a land grab of dubious moral imperative. General Ulysses S Grant, who fought in it, said it was “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, but many of the Hispanic families that remained in the newly created American south-west had their land grants stolen by Anglo settlers. These grabs were often backed by the American states’ court systems. Thus began a grand American tradition of redlining American citizens of Mexican descent that continued openly until the 1980s, when it went largely underground. It still exists today in the form of economically depressed neighbourhoods and even whole regions, like the one from which I hail: the Rio Grande valley of Texas.
The legacy of over 150 years of Mexican Americans — and later, immigrants from throughout Latin America — being segregated into the poorest communities the US has to offer has resulted in Hispanic Americans’ devastatingly low educational attainment rate and high rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and poor health. These circumstances hardly provide a pool brimming with high-level political talent. So Mexican Americans and other Hispanics are still not appearing in positions of national political power in proportion to their numbers — especially not within the Democratic party. In fact, a recent op-ed from NBC News points out that Bob Menendez is the only Latino Democrat in the US Senate, and he’s in danger of losing the job due to possible federal corruption charges. There are also only two Latino governors in the country, and they are both Republicans. There are exceptions to these dire numbers. I know hundreds of them. Latinos who, despite growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances, managed through great parenting, the advantages won by civil rights activists of the baby boomer generation and some brains, to rise to the top of their fields.
Two high-profile examples of this, and the best chance Americans have for a future Democratic presidential candidate of Hispanic descent, are the 41-year-old Castro twins of San Antonio, Texas. Joaquin is a US congressman, and Julian was the mayor of San Antonio and now serves as the US secretary of housing and urban development. Their mother, Rosie, is an activist who raised her sons on her own. She taught them to value community service and education, and they both graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law. They have been in the national spotlight since Barack Obama ran for re-election and I believe they are, wisely, waiting until they are a little older before one of them throws his hat in the ring for the White House — though there are rumours that Julian is on the shortlist to become Hillary Clinton’s running mate should she gain the Democratic nomination.
Texas Democratic party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa — the first Hispanic to hold the position — told me in a written statement that his organisation believes many issues important to Latinos, such as increasing incomes, making debt-free college a reality, ensuring paid-family leave, improving health care and fixing a broken immigration system, have been well represented by the current list of Democratic presidential candidates, but his organisation hopes that whoever wins the nomination will consider a Latino running mate. “Texas Democrats like Julian and Joaquin Castro have the values, government and leadership experience to be president,” Hinojosa said.
For today, Hispanics have a choice between voting for a party that openly hates them and one that takes them for granted, because who else are they going to vote for? How long can Democrats hold on to Hispanics with this tactic? If the Republicans keep recruiting conservative Cubans, sooner or later they will grab a larger share of the rest of the Hispanic vote, too.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer and the founding editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007.