Guy W. Farmer

We know it’s election season because politicians are falling all over themselves to pander to Hispanic voters. The latest example of this troubling trend is in neighboring California, where Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat facing a tough reelection battle, has said he will sign legislation to permit illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. What next?

My fellow columnist, Joseph Perkins of the San Diego Union-Tribune, with whom I frequently agree, quoted Gov. Davis earlier this month as saying that because “immigrants are an inseparable part of California’s social identity,” they are entitled to driver’s licenses. But, like most politicians, Davis failed to make the crucial distinction between legal and illegal immigrants — and there’s a big difference.

Of course legal, tax-paying immigrants are entitled to state driver’s licenses and other official documents. But, as Perkins wrote, illegal immigrants “hardly deserve to be rewarded for breaking U.S. immigration laws (or) for sneaking across this nation’s borders…. By virtue of their unlawfulness, they shouldn’t be entitled to driver’s licenses or any other government-sanctioned privileges.” I couldn’t agree more.

It’s apparent, however, that Gov. Davis and many politicians from states with large and growing Spanish-speaking populations (including Nevada) are quite willing to ignore federal immigration laws in their desperate quest for Hispanic votes. And, as Perkins noted, those who would grant privileges to illegal immigrants insinuate that those of us who wouldn’t are “somehow racist or xenophobic” — a strange charge to make against a prominent African-American columnist (Perkins).

Wisely, according to a recent Zogby Poll, two-thirds of California voters oppose driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. “That’s because Californians of all ethnicities (including many Hispanics) believe in the Rule of Law,” Perkins commented, and they believe that rewarding illegals with driver’s licenses will only encourage more illegal immigration, which we’re attempting to combat as part of the War On Terrorism.

With a valid driver’s license an illegal immigrant can easily secure employment, register to vote, transact financial business and board an airplane. This is true for illegal Arabs and Muslims as well as Hispanics. Think about it.

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So why are so many politicians willing to ignore the law by issuing driver’s licenses and other official documents to illegal immigrants? For two main reasons: (1) they think this is the best way to ingratiate themselves with Hispanic voters and (2) they want big campaign contributions from unethical employers who hire illegals to perform minimum-wage jobs with no benefits. Many Nevadans remember the unfortunate “undocumented” workers who blew themselves up in fatal explosions near Reno, Minden and Henderson in recent years.

Politicians in Nevada and elsewhere recognize the increasing importance of Hispanic voters. An estimated 4.6 million Hispanics are expected to vote in November’s general election throughout the country, an increase of 600,000 — or 13 percent — over the number who voted four years ago. According to the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, however, the Hispanic population is growing much faster than those who go to the polls.

That’s certainly true here in Carson City, where Hispanics account for more than 15 percent of the population but a much lower percentage of total voters. I base this opinion on my experience as an election worker at the Carson Mall during the Sept. 3 primary election, where I saw very few minority voters and even fewer young voters.

A number of organizations, including the new Carson City chapter of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), want to increase the Latino voter turnout, and I applaud their efforts. But until they can convert their numbers into votes, they’ll continue to be under-represented at all levels of government, and taken for granted by politicians of both major political parties.

Although Hispanics now account for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they occupy only 19 of 535 seats (about 3.5 percent) in Congress.

Many candidates court Hispanic voters by speaking a few words of bad Spanish, eating tacos and/or wearing big Mexican hats at Cinco de Mayo (May 5) celebrations. Most of them probably think that May 5 is Mexican Independence Day when, if the truth be known, Mexicans celebrate their independence on Sept. 16, when a Catholic priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo, in 1810 launched a long and bloody revolution against the Spanish “conquistadors.”

In fact, too many politicians think only of their Mexican-American constituents instead of realizing that Hispanic voters are as diverse as the rest of us; they include many people with ties to Central and South America as well as to Cuba and Puerto Rico. So candidates should be careful about serenading Cuban-Americans or Puerto Ricans (who are American citizens by birth) with Mexican mariachi music.

You can sample Latin American food, music and culture at today’s annual Salsa y Salsas festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Legislative Plaza, organized by Raquel Knecht (no relation to Assembly candidate Ron Knecht, by the way) and the Carson City office of Nevada Hispanic Services. I’ll see you there!

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.