The nation’s newest melting pot is Liberal, Kansas, a Dust Bowl enclave on the Oklahoma border that reflects the Democratic Party’s best chance for strengthening its grip on U.S. presidential elections.
The town of 23,027 had the country’s highest percentage of foreign-born residents last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. One in four Liberal residents was born outside the U.S., a higher proportion than Miami, New York or McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border.
Liberal illustrates how, in even some of the most reliably Republican states, shifting demographics hold peril for the party because of its inability to attract more support from the nation’s 52 million Hispanics. The largest minority group gave President Barack Obama 71 percent of its votes on Nov. 6, according to exit polls.
“There’s a lot of restlessness with people who are ready for a change, and this is the moment,” said Sulma Arias, executive director of Sunflower Community Action, an immigration-reform advocacy group that led a protest last week in Topeka. “Fifty thousand Latino students become eligible to vote in this country every month. This is the future of Kansas, and this is the future of America.”
The protest, which drew several hundred people to the state capital, demanded the resignation of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the architect of tough immigration policies in Arizona and Alabama. Kobach has been given credit for the part of the Republican Party’s 2012 platform that suggests illegal immigrants should self-deport.
Since 2000, the percentage of Hispanics in Kansas has grown to 8.4 percent of the adult population, up from 5.8 percent. While the state is unlikely to back a Democrat for president anytime soon -- Republican Mitt Romney got 60 percent of the vote here -- it’s among a handful of places where Hispanic growth may eventually tip the balance of electoral power.
The shift in influence was evident in the November elections in states such as Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
“Change is happening at different speeds, and it’s happening in different states,” Taylor said. “The numbers are compelling, and there’s more to come.”
In Arizona, where Romney took 54 percent of the vote, the percentage of Hispanics climbed to 25 percent of the adult population, up from 21.3 percent in 2000. In Georgia, which Romney carried with 53 percent, their ranks grew 50 percent, to 7.5 percent of adults. In North Carolina, where Romney won 50.6 percent, Hispanics are 6.8 percent of adult residents, up from 4.3 percent in 2000. In Indiana, where Romney got 54 percent, the percentage of Hispanics rose to 4.8 percent of adults.
Even in Utah, where the Republican nominee scored his biggest win with 73 percent of the vote, Hispanics now account for 11.3 percent of adults, up 3.2 percentage points from 2000.
Nationwide, Hispanics were the second-fastest-growing minority group during the decade. Their ranks climbed 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, topped only by the 43.3 percent increase registered by Asians.
Turnout rates still temper the electoral impact of those numbers: The Pew Hispanic Center reported in October that only half of eligible Latino voters cast ballots in 2008, compared with two-thirds of eligible blacks and whites. Even so, the Washington-based center reported, Hispanics make up a larger share of the electorate, rising to 11 percent of eligible voters this year from 9.5 percent in 2008 and 8.2 percent in 2004.
Kansas remains a Republican stronghold. A Democrat hasn’t won a U.S. Senate race there since 1932. Three of the state’s four Republican members of the U.S. House won election by an average margin of 29 percent. The fourth was unopposed.
On the surface, Romney won a big victory in Liberal, home to immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and Burma, as well as Mexico, and the epicenter of the 1930s Dust Bowl, the drought-stricken period that caused severe damage to the region’s economy.
The former Massachusetts governor got 3,495 votes in Liberal’s Seward County, about 70.5 percent of the total. Still, that was down from the 78.5 percent taken in 2004 by President George W. Bush. Almost 57 percent of Seward County’s population is Hispanic, a 36.7 percent increase during the last decade.
Immigrants have been drawn to rural Kansas by jobs, said Jeff Parsons, director of economic development in Liberal, where a packing plant owned by Kansas City-based National Beef Inc. employs about 3,500 people.
“There was some grumbling initially, but more people have embraced it by now,” Parsons said, adding that the October unemployment rate in Liberal was 3.7 percent. “It’s been good for our economy, it’s made us stronger.”
Among the participants at last week’s protest in Topeka was Lupita Hernandez, a high school junior from Wichita who was born in Mexico. She said she supported federal legislation creating a program that would grant residency to minors who are living illegally in the U.S.
“We have voices and we deserve opportunities that should not be taken away from us,” she said. “This will open huge doors for me, my siblings and my friends, so we have to speak up.”
Kobach, the secretary of state, said he isn’t intimidated by the protest or the demographic trends. White, non-Hispanics still make up 78 percent of Kansans, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.
“The audacity of these illegal aliens is amazing,” he said in a telephone interview. “First, they demand that we not enforce our laws against them; now they demand that a public official who believes in the rule of law should step down.
“My first duty is to the citizens of Kansas, not to illegal aliens.”
Kobach echoed the argument Romney made in a Nov. 14 call with campaign donors that Republicans lost the national election because of “gifts” such as food stamps and medical programs that Obama used to attract support from minorities and other voting groups.
“The Democrats will always offer more and more goodies and benefits for illegal immigrants, so if voters are interested in that, we wouldn’t be able to outbid them,” Kobach said. “Taking a strong stance in favor of enforcing this country’s laws will ultimately help the Republican Party.”
Parsons, Liberal’s economic development director, sees the town’s future in the loosening of immigration laws, not the tightening of restrictions.
“We’d love to see the process get easier so they can become citizens,” he said.