Obama and McCain: Where They Stand on Latino Issues

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By now, we’ve probably all seen Barack Obama’s mariachi video or noticed John McCain’s photo ops with Mexican president Felipe Calderón.

But, of course, we cosmopolatinos are too smart to vote for a candidate just because he panders to the “Latino vote”…right?

The problem is, from inside that mythic voting bloc, sometimes it’s hard to decipher what issues actually affect us, and what stance on those issues we should be looking for, anyway.

Clearly, fifth generation New Mexican doctors don’t have the same interests as a Dominican taxi-driver in Queens. For all the talk about Latinos as a single group, we’re an incredibly diverse bunch of folks, whose views obviously differ depending on where we’re from, how long we’ve been in the United States, how dark or light we are, what part of the U.S. we live in, etc.

Still, polls have found some unifying issues that could make an unprecedented number of Latinos flock to the polls this November: education, health care, the economy, the war, and immigration. Since 2000, the number of eligible Latino voters has grown from 4 million to about 18.2 million. And a full 15 % of caucus and primary voters last spring were Latino—almost double the turnout from 2004.

Moral wedge issues aside, the questions below are really our pan-y-mantequilla, what we should be paying attention to as the campaigns head into their last months—and what has likely gotten more of us to register to vote than ever before.

Yet another reason we should make an educated choice: approximately 30 to 40 % of Latino adults in the U.S. can’t vote, usually because they’re not citizens. Asi que, your 1 vote really speaks for 2 people. Here, we help you figure out what to say.


One in five public school students is now Latino, and our kids are still dropping out at higher rates than others. Is it any surprise the Pew Hispanic Center found education to be Latinos’ “top issue?” (Ninety-four percent of those polled called it extremely or very important.) Several programs are especially crucial:

For one, the famous No Child Left Behind Act that Bush passed, but then barely funded. This law pressured schools to close the achievement gap between white, English-speaking students, and other groups such as Latino kids and English-language learners.  All good, but to make it work, the government will need to allocate way more money to the program.

Second, the DREAM Act would make undocumented teens eligible for public and private financial aid, and for in-state tuition rates at public colleges. Obviously, a big help for those of us sin papeles (think about all the brilliant minds that are going to waste.

And finally, the William F. Goodling Even Start Family Literacy Program helps both kids and parents become literate, and about half the families it serves are Latino. But, the Bush government drastically cut funds for this program. Bad news!

SCORECARD: McCain wants to re-evaluate No Child Left Behind, and says lots of stuff is wrong with it. He also supports merit bonuses for outstanding teachers.

Obama wants to offer families a $4,000 tax credit to help pay for college, and says the No Child program needs to be better funded. Both co-sponsored and support the DREAM Act—good news for us!

Health Care:

Besides education, the Pew Hispanic Center’s poll revealed health care is our second biggest issue (Ninety-one percent of us say it’s highly important). That’s no surprise, considering Latinos are the most underinsured of all the major groups: about 1 in 3 of us have no health coverage, compared to just 1 in 10 non-Hispanic whites. And more than a third of all uninsured kids are Latino.

A good candidate for Latinos would likely be one in favor of the Legal Immigrant Children’s Health Improvement Act, which lets states give legal immigrant children access to Medicaid and Family Health Plus-style programs. Another important act is the Health Equality and Accountability Act. This one supports eliminating health care gaps between rich and poor. And oh…what about Universal Health Care? We’re not sure if it’s a pipe dream…but that would probably be pretty helpful to Latinos as well.

SCORECARD: Obama wants to mandate that all children have health insurance, and would pay for it by taxing high-income households at a higher rate. McCain wants a free-market system where people would pay for their own care, and says affordable health care for all Americans would not require a tax hike. Both have pledged to help those with serious health problems gain insurance.

The Economy:

Latinos have been hard hit by both job loss and the homeowners’ crisis. And of course…rising gas and food prices don’t help. Some possible solutions: Improving tax cuts for moderate-income Latino families (and keeping the Earned Income Tax Credit in place); also, expanding the Workforce Investment Act so that job training programs can better include folks who don’t speak English well. Training is especially needed for jobs in health care and “green” industries, according to the National Council of La Raza.

Other programs that could help us: housing and financial counseling to help avoid foreclosure; tougher laws against predatory lenders; and help with saving for retirement, since strapped Latinos do this at a way lower rate than other groups.

And of course, programs that help out small businesses are key for Latinos, since everyone knows 15 minutes after we move into a neighborhood, we are already opening our own bodegas, restaurants, taxi services, etc. etc.

SCORECARD: McCain says he will raise the exemption for each dependent (which would help out large Latino families). But, he also wants to cut taxes for high-income earners, a group which includes few Latinos.

Meanwhile, Obama says he will cut taxes for those making under $75,000, while increasing taxes on those earning more than $250,000 per year.  Obama also wants to invest $250 million per year in programs that help working-class people start their own businesses…but keep in mind that level of funding equals less than $1 per U.S. resident. He also touts a $150 billion, 10-year plan to invest in green industries and green job training—which could be a boon for working-class Latinos.


This is the one that pundits often assume is our biggest issue…and, actually, it is pretty huge, even for those of us born here. Who doesn’t have a relative or friend sin papeles or notice anti-immigrant backlash that lumps all Latinos together? The battle under the next president is likely to be two-fold: both sides have been clamoring for Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform.

A good president for Latinos would obviously be willing to push this through. Although an ideal solution is complicated, most Latinos would benefit from a plan without a harsh focus on deportation, and offering some route to legal status for the 12 million people already in the U.S. without papers.

At the same time, in the next four years, states and city governments will probably take on immigration too, both in ways that both help and harm immigrants. On one hand, New Haven, Connecticut, declared itself a de facto sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, offering them ID cards regardless of legal status. But in Arizona, Proposition 200 denies basic public services to illegals and forces government workers to check their immigration status.

Since many of these local measures have been challenged in court, it’s also important to pay attention to what kind of judges the next president would appoint.

SCORECARD: McCain led a bi-partisan effort to push through immigration reform, and has said in the past that if he could gain illegal immigrants citizenship, they’d vote Republican for generations. He supports guest worker visas and allowing undocumented gente to gain legal status if they pay fines and learn English.

Obama supports the same, but also would seek to grant drivers licenses to illegals. But—surprise! They both voted for the border fence! Yikes. As for judges, Obama’s said he’s for compassionate appointees, while McCain has praised some of the Supreme Court’s more conservative judges.

The War:

Just between 2001 and 2005, Latino enlistment in the Army rose 26%, possibly because military recruiters have been targeting the hell out of us. A weak economy, combined with a pretty decent view of the military in many of our communities, means those numbers could grow more.

What does all this mean for us as a group? There are definitely negatives: About 450 Latinos have died in the war in Iraq and thousands more have been injured—not to mention the many who return with psychological trauma.

But, at the same time, there could be positives: In other eras, military benefits have helped working-class veterans gain education and climb the economic ladder (take the GI Bill after World War II, for example, which paid for veterans’ college tuition).

A candidate that’s good for Latinos would probably support bringing our young people home soon. But at the same time, he should be a firm backer of veterans’ benefits and rights.

SCORECARD: McCain is in favor of increasing troops in Iraq…but said he’d hope to have them home by 2013. Obama wants to withdraw troops within about 16 months and opposed the war from the start. On veterans’ issues, McCain sat out a vote to expand education benefits for veterans. He also voted no on a bill to provide $500 million in help for veterans who come back with PTSD or other psychological problems. Obama voted yes on both.

Foreign Relations:

According to polls, Latinos don’t care about this.

But really we should: free trade is a big issue for us, since it affects the economic growth of our families’ countries, and actually could affect how many immigrants come here.

Having a free trade agreement with the United States acts as a seal of approval for other foreign investment, so it’s a big economic boon for Latin American countries. That’s something we can all agree is positive, especially at a time when countries with weaker economies, including Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, continue to be losing huge chunks of their populations to emigration.

But—ojo! When the agreements don’t have enough safeguards for workers’ rights and the environment, that opens the door for disasters like Chevron’s mega-pollution in the Ecuadorian jungle, and the sweatshop-like maquiladora factories along the U.S.-Mexico border.

A good president for Latinos will support special free trade benefits for Latin countries, such as the Colombian Free Trade Agreement that’s currently under consideration. But, he’ll make sure the agreements include rules for how workers and the earth should be treated that are at least as tough—or ideally even tougher—than those in the United States.

Other big issues for some of us: the current rules of the Cuban embargo, which even some conservative Miami Cubans are now calling too harsh.

Overall, it would be good for Latinos to have a president willing to negotiate with Latin America’s leaders, including the new leftists. Yes, Hugo Chavez might not cooperate with either candidate, but our president needs to be able to cooperate with Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and other major economic and social forces in the hemisphere.

SCORECARD: McCain supports free trade agreements (he voted yes on a pact with Chile, and on CAFTA—an agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic.) He also wants Brazil to become part of the G8—basically, the world’s superpowers club. And, he did promise in a speech last March that his first trip abroad as president would be to Latin America. But, he’s really only buddy-buddy with Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, and would likely continue the détente with the Latin American leftists, especially Chavez and Castro.

Obama has come out against free trade agreements many times, saying they would take jobs away from American workers, and voicing his concerns about lax workers-rights protections. He voted against CAFTA and sat out a vote on the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement passed earlier this year, which was widely lauded by economists. He favors easing the embargo on Cuba. Important: he also enjoys huge popularity with Latin Americans (in a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, he won hands-down in every Latin American country polled).