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The Latino wave

[1] [1]

By Pedro G. Cavallero (for Safe Democracy)

Pedro G. Cavallero highlights the exponential growth that the Latino community has had in the past decade in the US, stressing the fact that this social and demographic trend has evolved at an extremely rapid pace, generating concerns about the nation’s ability to keep up the newcomers’ arrivals, and the overall enforcement of existing immigration regulations. Nevertheless, problematic trends appear on the horizon, as a rarified and xenophobic discourse has begun to creep into political races. Cavallero states that Hispanic America is at a crossroads. And as Hispanic numbers continue to increase, so will the need for Latinos to assemble large, inclusive, and widely-encompassing coalitions that convey one simple message: Hispanic America has a stake in developing a strong, welcoming, tolerant, and powerful America.


[2] Pedro German Cavallero is a policy analyst based in Washington DC. He holds a master degree in Comparative Law and comments regularly on U.S. foreign policy and inter-American affairs.

DURING THE PAST DECADE, LATINOS IN THE UNITED STATES have grown exponentially by 58 per cent nationwide. In 2003, the Census Bureau made official what advocates have long anticipated: Latinos surpassed African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group. In the process, they have become its fastest-growing ethnic group. In 2004, the Hispanic community reached 40 million, accounting for 14.2 per cent of the entire country’s population. This growth has resulted from the combination of two main factors: high birthrates and the immigration flow proceeding from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, the traditionally “Hispanic states” (those with strong Hispanic concentrations and a longstanding Latino presence, such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York), have been followed by others where at best, a sparse Latino presence existed merely a decade ago. In this context, the South has become the epicenter of a fast-growing Hispanic America.

NOT A SURPRISE
However, the demographic explosion should not come as a surprise. As the United States remains the beacon of impoverished populations living to the south of its border, wave after wave of both legal and undocumented immigrants continue to come from Mexico, Central America, and South America. The estimated number of individual crossings through the U.S.-Mexico border is approximately 400,000 annually, mostly in Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

This social and demographic trend has evolved at an extremely rapid pace, generating concerns about the nation’s ability to keep up the newcomers’ arrivals, and the overall enforcement of existing immigration regulations. Others are particularly concerned by the changing in the composition of the American society, as anti-immigrant and xenophobic spokespersons single-out and scapegoat Latinos for any real or imaginary shortcomings.

STRANGERS IN THE MIDST
In the early 1990s, many questioned whether in fact a “Hispanic America” truly existed. Today, even the most skeptical observer would have to concede that, not only Hispanic America is a permanent and defining feature of the United States, but one that will play a significant role in redefining the country in years to come. Most recently, an unprecedented wave of pro-immigration rallies organized throughout the country by Hispanic grassroots groups brought to American society’s attention the mobilizing capacity exercised by Latinos.

However, despite this greater exposure, Hispanics remain a dimly blurred and often contradictory image that growing numbers have been unable to dispel. For most Americans, Latinos are consumers not producers; tax beneficiaries, not tax contributors; and even lawbreakers, not law-abiding citizens.

HIGHER THAN NATIONAL AVERAGE

Yet, the data available on Hispanics’ contributions contradicts those widely-held images: the overall Latino labor force participation rate continues to be higher than the national average, and nearly all undocumented men are in the labor force, exceeding the labor force participation rate of both U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. Furthermore, Latino purchasing power is projected to reach as much as $1 trillion by 2010, constituting another concrete measure of entrepreneurial drive, vitality, and industriousness.

In addition to their domestic impact, in 2004 Hispanics sent to Latin America more than $45 billion in remittances, up from $38 billion the previous year. Those indicators contradict prevailing images of a predominantly passive and welfare-dependent population group.

The 2004 presidential elections pushed Hispanics further into the spotlight. At least 7.6 million Latinos voted in 2004 (compared to the 5.9 million Hispanic voters in the 2000 presidential election), doubling the community’s electoral participation since 1998. However, this remarkable turnout is still far lower than would occur if Latino voter registration and turnout rates were similar to those of Anglos or African Americans.

ELECTORAL BEHAVIOR

Another element that has reinforced society’s attention on Hispanics has been the community’s recent electoral behavior. Departing from historical patterns (given Latinos longstanding ties to the Democratic Party), approximately 40 per cent of the Hispanic votes supported the reelection of a Republican president, dispelling in the process the long-held myth of an ideologically-monolithic group. As a result, America witnessed a sudden enhancement of the Latino presence, one which could preannounce greater access to non-traditional political spheres.

However, it will be up to those in positions of leadership at the community level to encourage and accompany an even stronger Latino drive toward truly bipartisanship that would reposition Latinos vis-à-vis both political parties.

Hispanics must pursue a greater role in shaping parties’ positions and messages, setting the terms of their own interaction within party circles in ways that reflect the seismic demographic changes occurred in America.

XENOPHOBIC DISCOURSE IN POLITICS

Simultaneously, problematic trends appear on the horizon, as a rarified and xenophobic discourse has begun to creep into political races. Throughout the ongoing immigration debate has emerged a deeply-rooted anti-immigrant (and anti-Hispanic) sentiment, worrying community leaders.

As a result, the nation’s challenges (national security concerns, staggering budget deficits, education) are sidetracked by those willing to scapegoat Latinos for circumstantial adjustments. In the face of this reality, Latinos must convey an even more sophisticated message, sharpening its radar screens, and responding intelligently to the biased portrayal.

Evidently, Hispanic America is at a crossroads. As Hispanic numbers continue to increase, so will the need for Latinos to assemble large, inclusive, and widely-encompassing coalitions that convey one simple message: Hispanic America has a stake in developing a strong, welcoming, tolerant, and powerful America.