But it’s going to take more than just J-Lo’s remix of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and some symbolic gestures of inclusion to address the needs of US Latinos, a sometimes united but often fragmented ethno-racial group which too often feels overlooked. The question for Latinos, whose role in electing the new President has been endlessly debated, is how much they really figure into the Biden agenda.
At least Biden won’t fall into the trap of pandering to Latinos by trying to speak to them in superficial Spanish phrases, like other candidates — he openly admits he just plain mangles it. Just what his presidency can really do for Latinos begins with targeted actions that point directly to Latinos, like immigration reform, policy toward the Mexican border, Cuba, South America and the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico.
Some of these have already been addressed in a series of executive orders he signed on Inauguration Day. Although it appears symbolic, the Biden immigration reform proposal to change the word “alien” to “noncitizen” is extremely significant because it breaks a pattern of dehumanization and stereotyping that props up the language of systemic racism.
But other reforms, such as re-organizing the nation’s Covid-19 response, continuing the freeze on student loan payments, criminal justice reform, a moratorium on evictions, expanding access to health care and higher education, and climate change, though not specifically targeted to Latinos, can have greater impact. While many Latinos are passionate about immigration reform, it is clear that issues that affect the broader population can be even more important. Only 34% of Latinos in the US are foreign born but are significantly plagued by wealth inequality, lack of access to quality health care and the fallout from mass incarceration.
One of the first clear signals Biden has sent to show that he takes Latinos seriously is his attempt to diversify his Cabinet, naming several Latinos to key posts, such as Mexican American Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Puerto Rican Dr. Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education, and Cuban Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security. Latinos can also celebrate the naming of former California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate.
But the unexpected Latino turnout for Trump in states like Florida sends a strong signal that the Biden administration, and the core of the Democratic Party, must continue to find ways to respond to Latino voters and their concerns. Taking bold actions to reduce or eliminate Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion debt, as proposed by both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, could go a long way to push back against Biden’s shaky showing among Latinos in Florida. And rolling back the Trump administration’s increasingly punitive measures toward Cuba might gain more support from Florida Cubans than previously thought possible.
The Biden administration may face an early test with the expected increase in a wave of asylum seekers from Central America in the first months of the new year. While Republicans are already cynically portraying this as the result of a Democratic “open borders” policy, the real reasons stem from two recent, absolutely devastating hurricanes, as well as drought and economic woes. Biden must improve on both Trump’s cruel policies toward Central America as well as former President Barack Obama’s misguided deportation policies, recognizing the importance of how US foreign and border policy can negatively impact Latinos living in the country.
Latinos still struggle with wealth and employment gaps, over-representation in the prison system, lack of parity in education and home-ownership rates, despite outnumbering White non-Hispanics in California and almost equal to non-Hispanic Whites in Texas. While some advocates point to a history of disproportionately low levels of Latinos among local and federal elected officials, the Biden administration could make up for that lack in quantity with the quality of their concern for Latino issues.
While Biden’s declaration that “democracy has prevailed” brings some solace to a nation looking forward to restoring its political viability, his administration needs to work on its shaky economic reality, one that affects Latinos and other marginalized groups critically. With Democratic control of both legislative houses, this is their chance to create the conditions that would expand support for Democrats among Latinos so that it could come closer to the level demonstrated by African Americans for many decades.