FREE SPEECH ZONE | When numbers are not enough: growth and (ir)relevance of Latinos in the United States

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A couple of weeks ago, Professor Rogelio Saenz, Dean of the College of Public Policy at University of Texas, San Antonio, was at the Humphrey School presenting his research on changing Latino demographics in the nation. Invited by the Department of Chicano Studies, Professor Saenz reviewed a series of data from the 2010 Census and reiterated some trends that demographers and Latinos all over the US have been predicting for a while: 1) Latinos enjoy a youthful age structure; 2) immigration trends have been stabilizing with no new noticeable waves of foreign immigration; and 3) a high fertility rate and low mortality rate, which accounts for much of the population growth.

This puts Latinos as the second largest demographic group in the country, with a strong 50.4 million (without counting the 4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island), representing 16 percent of the total population. And by all accounts, Saenz is right when he says that Latinos are the engine of growth in the nation: Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent (74 percent in Minnesota) and in terms of its buying power, it has reached $1 trillion. Also, Latinos are the fastest growing business owners generating $400 billion annually.

However, as Dr. Saenz explains, despite these factors and the historical roots of Latinos in the US (particularly Mexican Americans who currently represent 70% of Latinos in the country) and the fact that 63% of Latinos are US born, Latinos continue to be seen as perpetual foreigners. Saenz reflects and concludes that they continue to be ignored in much of social and political life, in the media, and in the political dialogue. His argument is also supported by data from the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts demonstrating that from March to November of 2010, a total of 380 guests and commentators participated in ABC This Week, CBS Face the Nation, FOX News Sunday, and NBC Meet the Press. Only 12 of these were Hispanic or 3 percent of the invited commentators.

Saenz also mentioned the case of Texas where Latinos represented 90% of the population growth. Despite their increasing numbers and the fact that these groups will certainly fuel the economy, provoke a demand for higher education, and will very likely constitute a strong middle class, the state legislature decided to cut $4.8 billion in public school funding, $1 billion to support pre-school for low-income children, and $1 billion to lower school dropout rates. This is a big toll on education in general, but for Latinos in particular as for the society as a whole we are losing critical thinkers able and willing to participate in the shaping of a democratic society.

This also brings to mind the story of Alejandrina Cabrera an American citizen of Hispanic origin who was barred from running as councilwoman in her town, San Luis, Arizona. A judge ruled that the city council candidate must be removed from the ballot due to lack of English proficiency, based on the state law requirement that any person holding office in the state, a county or city must speak, write and read English. However, according to some sources, 90% of the population in that little border town speaks Spanish, which makes these rules almost obsolete. In addition, even if the law dates since statehood in 1902, it does not define what proficiency in the language means. Cabrera’s attorney is appealing the judge decision.

These two stories showcase not only the existing diversity within the Latino community but also reflect similar patterns and life stories experienced by previous waves of immigrants: in each generation, new immigrants will integrate into the culture and the language, but good public policy (education, housing, health care, etc.) has helped in this process. However, ever-increasing budget cuts in social programs and education make both the integration of new comers and the aspirations of those born here, paramount.

To complicate the matter, the paralysis in Washington politics regarding immigration reform continues to be a costly burden to the nation. This impasse shows the tension that will exist in the decades to come if the broken immigration system is not effectively resolved. Failure to fix out immigration system will not only keep millions of Latinos undocumented and in the shadows, but that same reality will continue to paint Latinos born in the US as foreigners and somehow second class citizens.

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