3:22pm

Fri March 25, 2011
Politics

Hispanic Clout Trails Population Growth — For Now

Though the Hispanic population in the United States has reached a milestone by surpassing 50 million, analysts say the full impact of the growth — especially on the political front — won't surface for years to come.

Census Bureau data released Thursday showed that 1 in every 6 U.S. residents is Latino, exceeding projections for many states and confirming estimates from a year ago that Hispanics had surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest minority. Over the past 10 years, Hispanics and Asians both grew faster than any other group and have increased their totals by 43 percent since 2000.

Demographers and other analysts see the Hispanic growth, which has made the group 16 percent of the U.S. population, as no surprise given population trends that date back to the 1990s. The greater significance, they say, on communities experiencing the influx will set in gradually as Latinos, both foreign- and native-born, continue to assimilate — a process likely to take another decade or so.

For now, one big impact of the new data is showing up in politics, as strong Latino growth has guaranteed eight states additional seats in Congress for the upcoming reapportionment process.

"They have got blinders on in the political class in understanding how important the Latino population can be," said demographer William Frey, a senior fellow in the metropolitan policy program of the Brookings Institution.

"At this point in time, a lot of the Latinos are not registered voters and many are undocumented. But what's important is that the young Latinos are going to be voting in five to 10 years and they are very interested in what's going on. They are going to be key constituencies," he said.

Most of the eight states owe their upcoming gains of congressional seats to strong Hispanic population growth, census figures indicate. However, large numbers of these added Hispanics can't vote, because they are illegal immigrants or too young. Experts point to new data from the 2010 that indicate their bigger political impact will come later: 1 in every 4 U.S. children is Hispanic.

Texas, for example, will gain four seats after its already huge Hispanic population soared by 41.8 percent since 2000. Its 9.5 million Hispanics now make up more than 37 percent of the state's total. Florida, where Hispanics grew by more than 57 percent and now represent 22.5 percent of the total, will receive two new seats. Nevada and Georgia each get an additional House district partly because of Hispanic growth.

Hispanics tend to vote more often for Democratic than Republican candidates. For example, In the 2010 midterms, 60 percent of Latino voters backed Democrats and 38 percent voted for Republicans, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of exit polling. That poses a dilemma for Republicans controlling the redrawing of congressional districts in most of the states redrawing districts. In many of those states, Republicans have alienated Hispanics by promoting tougher immigration enforcement policies.

"The irony is that you've got these very anti-immigrant platforms that are being advanced in some cases by politicians whose districts are brand new that wouldn't exist but for large Hispanic populations," said Francisco Pedraza, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. "And once those districts are redrawn, especially in Texas, it's going to be impossible not to draw a boundary that doesn't make a Latino majority-minority district. So, one thing is that some states that were red may become more blue."

Elsewhere, particularly in the Midwest, states depended on Hispanic arrivals to prop up stagnating populations.

In Iowa, slowed growth — a net gain of just 120,031 people over the decade — will cost the state one of its five congressional seats. Non-Hispanics increased less than 2 percent while Latinos mushroomed by nearly 84 percent, gaining more than 151,000.

Hispanics make up only 5 percent of Iowa's population of 3 million, but their growth and comparatively higher birthrate are credited with ending a 13-year decline in school enrollment. This fall the head count is projected to inch upward slightly, helping to stave off funding cuts and pressure to close schools.

As whites have continued to leave the state, Hispanics have become critical to the state's agribusiness economy.

"We've had brain drain of people leaving the state," says Rebecca Jackson of Denison, Iowa, who works for a state-funded agency that places migrant workers in jobs, primarily in the small town's four meatpacking plants. Jackson also is a board member of the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs.

In Denison, population 8,298, the share of whites declined to 62 percent from 88 percent in 2000, while that of Hispanics doubled to 34 percent. Jackson says Hispanic pupils have become the majority in Denison schools and are "keeping our schools open while other school districts are having to consolidate." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.