Showdown in Arizona

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman

Obama must pursue immigration reform.

if there's one number that should matter most to politicians right now--in Washington, in Arizona--it's 83. Thatis the percentage of young Hispanic voters who, according to a new Democracia USA survey, worry about being discriminated against. Why so crucial? It's impossible to overstate Hispanic political power: for each of the next 20 years (and in each of the last 10), a half million Latino citizens will turn 18--voting age. By midcentury, census data show, Hispanics will be the country's largest ethnic group. By the end of the century, they'll be the majority.

Geography, educational mores, and technology make this group different from earlier immigrant waves. The ideal of assimilation--Teddy Roosevelt's melting-pot standard--is outdated in a country where most new immigrants are from next door, urban public schools are not as diverse and rigorous as they once were, and satellites and the Internet keep people tethered to their home culture. Democracia's poll found that, while young Hispanics believe in the American Dream, they recoil at what they see as an obsession with money. They find refuge in an empathetic Latino ethos--and in speaking Spanish. Two thirds referred to themselves as bilingual or bicultural. "When I was growing up in New Jersey, we would run away from our Hispanic heritage," says Jorge Mursuli, a Cuban-American and the head of Democracia. "With these kids, it's entirely different. They want to--need to--embrace Hispanic culture. They feel fortunate to be able to live in two worlds."

That, however, makes them especially sensitive--and vulnerable--to an immigration law like Arizona's, which gives police wide latitude to stop anyone they have "reasonable cause" to think is in the country illegally. Not surprisingly, Latinos view the law as a license to harass. Still, that hasn't stopped Republican candidates nationwide from tripping over each other as they run to the right on the issue. That's what Sen. John McCain is doing--rather -unconvincingly--in Arizona to fend off a challenge from onetime congressman J. D. Hayworth. In California's GOP primary for governor, the formerly anodyne businesswoman Meg Whitman has a spot featuring former governor Pete Wilson calling her "tough as nails" on immigration--even though (or rather, because) Wilson is reviled in the Hispanic community for supporting a similarly draconian state law in 1994. …