By Jose Luis Sierra
New America Media
LAS VEGAS – As a crop of anti-immigration legislation in several states – copycat versions of Arizona’s SB 1070 – made headlines nationally, the issue of immigration reform was not the most pressing issue for Latino community and media leaders, at the National Association of Hispanic Publications in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Ahead of next year’s presidential elections, a group of Latino leaders and opinion makers grappled with the question of what issues contribute the most to sustain this country’s social inequities and how could they be fixed. To no one’s surprise, the issue of immigration reform went to the bottom of the list of concerns.
In spite of the constant hoopla going around the country on the pros and cons of immediate immigration reform, jobs, housing and education emerged as the more immediate issues to be resolved to level the playing field and allow minorities the same opportunities as whites.
For the seven panelists — nationally recognized leaders of Latino organizations, students’ rights advocates, publishers and representatives of major corporation – the reason immigration reform has fallen in urgency is fairly simple: undocumented immigrants constitute less than one-fifth of the Latino immigrant population, or about 11 million. The consensus among panelists was that, under the present economic and political landscape, any proposal to push for immigration reform will be DOA (Dead On Arrival).
Meanwhile, jobs and housing have shot to the top of the agenda for community leaders.
“Latinos’ unemployment rate is 15, or 16 percent and is already affecting our middle class,” said Antonio Gonzalez, director of the South West Voter Registration Project, a national Latino organization that focuses on the registration and participation of Latino voters in the nation’s political process. “We need political clout,’’ he added to an audience of about 50 editors and publishers of Hispanic publications in the United States.
In a city with the highest real estate loan default rates in the nation -one in about 118 homeowners in Las Vegas received a foreclosure notice last month- housing has become the second priority, not only because Latinos, like most minorities, tend to live in the poorest neighborhoods, but also because during the current foreclosure crisis, Latinos and blacks have been hit the hardest.
According to a recent study done by the Center for Responsible Lending, the foreclosure rate for blacks and Latinos is nearly double the rate for whites (about 8 percent, compared to 4.5 percent, respectively). Aside from losing their homes, foreclosure victims also ruin their credit, and the financial instability contributes to widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.
“Why do you put the immigration issue in front of all discussions when you know [immigration reform] is not going to happen,” asked Roland S. Martin, a CNN contributor based in Chicago, during the panel.
“We have to stick with the issues that really affect our community,’’ said Alma Morales Riojas, from the Mexican American Women’s National Association (MANA). While she agreed that jobs, housing and education have become the top priorities in the national Latino agenda, she argued that immigration remains an important issue, because under the Obama administration more families have been separated by deportations than under past administrations.
“We had more deportations under four years of the Obama [administration] than during the eight years of President [George W.] Bush,’’ she pointed out.
All the members of the panel agreed that immigration reform should remain a key issue on the Latino political agenda, but agreed that topics like education, for Latinos and minorities, should be a priority.
“The majority of the parents want good education for their children,’’ said Clara Padilla-Andrews, former president of NAHP and a publisher of Hispanic publications in Oregon and New Mexico. “But many Latino parents face a lot of challenges to deal with the system. Many have two or three jobs and struggle with [the English] language,’’ she added.
Juan Gonzalez, a high school student in Las Vegas, said many of his peers don’t see a future in education and attribute that to the fact that a lot of them begin school already at a disadvantage compared to non-Latino students.
“When blacks or Spanish children show up at kindergarten, they are already behind,’’ said Gonzalez, adding that children coming from poor families have less access to just about everything.
Conference attendees also emphasized that in the upcoming elections, Latinos and minorities constitute a relevant voting bloc that can derail the dreams of any of a still two party system. The first step in our quest to achieve equality begins in big part on the willingness of the people to get out and vote, many of them said.
“No matter if you vote Republican or Democrat,’’ said Juan Andrade, of the Latino Leadership Institute. “Until we develop the ability to punish those that betray us… no vamos a llegar a ninguna parte (we won’t get anywhere).