HERNDON, Va. _ These have been heady days for America‘s Hispanic immigrant activists, with round after round of massive demonstrations culminating in the May 1 marches and boycott.
But on May 2, town elections in this pretty little Washington suburb, which has emerged as a microcosm of America‘s changing demographics and its bitter divide over illegal immigration, provided a sobering reminder of the vast – and growing – chasm between the geometric growth of the country’s Hispanic population and its relative lack of electoral clout.
In a stunning rout, Herndon voters defeated Mayor Michael O’Reilly and most of the Town Council members who had established an official day labor center for Hispanic immigrant workers, many of them illegal. More stinging yet, in a community that was 26 percent Hispanic in 2000, and is probably close to a third Hispanic today, Salvadoran-born Jorge Rochac, an ally of the mayor who had helped administer the new center, lost his bid to become the first Hispanic on the council. Instead, Rochac, who would have become only the second Latino elected official currently serving in the state of Virginia, finished dead last.
Rochac knew going in that he could not count on a lot of Hispanic votes. Two-thirds of Herndon’s Hispanics are not citizens, and most of those who are don’t vote. But the apparent inability of Herndon’s burgeoning Hispanic community to rally any significant support for Rochac makes plain the high hurdles Hispanics face on the road to political empowerment.
To put it in stark historical context, Hispanic voter registration rates today in Virginia and other Southeastern states, which have some of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, are far lower than black voter registration rates were throughout most of the South in the last days of Jim Crow.
The history and reasons may be entirely different, but the fact remains that once again, the nation’s largest minority (blacks then, Hispanics now), cannot vote in anything like their true numbers. It has the makings of a new American dilemma in which a distinct group of people, often identifiable by their color, culture and language, are consigned not just to a lower economic caste (“doing the jobs Americans won’t do”), but also a political limbo in which many of them cannot exercise the most fundamental right of American democracy.
And it’s not just in the South.
Nationally, 34 percent of Hispanics 18 and over were registered to vote in 2004, a rate roughly comparable to the black voter registration rate in Louisiana 40 years earlier, before enactment of the Voting Rights Act broke down the systematic barriers Southern states had erected to block black access to the franchise.
But the consequences are particularly obvious in states like those in the Southeast where the Latino surge is relatively recent.
So, while less than 30 percent of Texas Latinos, and only a little better than a quarter of California Latinos, voted in 2004, there is still such a large and longstanding Latino population in those states that according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, as of 2005, California had more than 1,000, and Texas more than 2,000 Latino elected officials from the school board level up. Florida and New Jersey each had more than 100 Latino elected officials.
Meanwhile, Virginia and South Carolina each had one; Louisiana and Tennessee, two; North Carolina, three; and Georgia, seven. Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas had none.
Even as more Hispanics become citizens and register every day, the profound gap between population and electoral power grows wider. As the Pew Hispanic Center reported last June, while Hispanics accounted for half of the national population growth between 2000 and 2004, they accounted for only one-tenth of the increase in the total number of votes cast, because so many in the new Latino population are not citizens or are under 18.
The recent wave of massive protests, in which hundreds of thousands of Hispanic immigrants took to the streets in cities across America, provided this population that has little voting strength with a powerful forum for delivering their demand that Congress act to enable the many among them who are illegal a way to remain here and gain legal status.
“We vote with our feet, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” said Armando Navarro, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of California at Riverside and coordinator of the National Alliance for Human Rights, which helped plan the protests.
But Columbia University political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza warns they are in danger of overplaying their hand. “I don’t think David would have beaten Goliath two out of three,” said de la Garza, the vice president for research at the Tomas Rivera Policy Center.
It seems likely that the images of the protests hurt Jorge Rochac’s chances Tuesday, his name an easy racial Rorschach test for those inflamed by images of a vast and newly assertive illegal immigrant community.
Not so long ago, Herndon, less than half white and very diverse, was viewed by many here as an idealized projection of the American future.
Now it is divided down the middle.
Steve DeBenedittis, who defeated O’Reilly for mayor, is the brother of Jennie Albers, one of the coordinators of the day labor center.
It’s those who say “people are people” versus those who say “the law’s the law,” as Pat Williams puts it. Williams, chairman of the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce, backed O’Reilly’s slate, including Rochac.
Rochac, 66, was no ordinary candidate. Born in El Salvador, he was 4 when his family left because his father was exiled for political reasons. Educated at a California boarding school and Georgetown and George Washington universities, he later returned to El Salvador, contracted in 1984 to put together the country’s first free elections after four decades of military rule. He later managed El Salvador‘s port authority.
He returned to the United States in 1989, retiring to Herndon, though he subsequently bought a Hispanic travel agency here, also doing a brisk business in immigration and citizenship papers and tax returns.
While he remains a citizen of El Salvador, returning to vote in its presidential elections, and also is doing paperwork to gain Spanish citizenship (he is eligible because of his father’s father), Rochac became an American citizen in 2004 with an eye to someday running for the Town Council. He cast his first vote for George W. Bush.
In his campaign he stressed his local good works. For years he rode along with Herndon police weekend nights, a volunteer translator and go-between with the Hispanic community.
Combing the voter rolls, he identified 874 Hispanic names, but discovered to his dismay that in the 2005 gubernatorial election, only 24 of them voted.
This time, Rochac, with the help of Hispanic members of a local laborers union, made sure that every one of those Hispanic voters was contacted by the campaign at least four times.
“I just knew he was trying to do something good for the Spanish; that’s all,” said Naty Menjivar, a 39-year-old Honduran immigrant wearing the uniform of the heating and cooling company he works for, after voting for the first time since becoming a citizen.
But Rochac, who stood outside the community center where all the votes were cast from the time the polls opened at 6 a.m to the time they closed at 7 p.m., his white mane framed in a straw hat, saw too few voters like Menjivar. “The Hispanics didn’t come out,” he said.
The overall turnout of 26 percent was a record for a town election, up from 20 percent two years ago, and obviously included many angered by the town’s decision to create the day labor center, which replaced an informal arrangement that had taken over a convenience store parking lot.
“We underestimated the amount of resistance, or even hatred, that exists in our community,” Mayor O’Reilly told his shaken supporters.
But George Taplin, founder of Herndon’s branch of the Minutemen, a group that opposes hiring illegal immigrants, disagreed.
“Just because you want to follow the law instead of appeasing lawbreakers doesn’t mean you’re a bigot,” said Taplin. The real message, he said, is to listen to the people.
In defeat, Rochac, a sunny man of elegant bearing whose campaign theme was unity, furrowed his brow.
“The divisiveness is going to grow exponentially,” he warned. “I fear a backlash from Hispanics if they find themselves backed into a corner. A cornered animal is very dangerous.”