Meditations on Latinoization, Citizenship, and Belonging

The following essay is taken from the conclusion of Louis Mendoza's forthcoming book, Conversations Across Our America: Talking About Immigration and Latinoization (UT Press, Spring 2012)

Conversations Across Our America is and is not my story, just as it is and is not your story wherever you position yourself within the debates on immigration. Latinoization refers to the ongoing process of cultural, social change occurring in the United States as a result of the profound demographic shifts of the last forty years. Latinoization is not a phenomenon that occurs with the United States as a passive actor, rather it is a consequence of the interconnectedness of imperialism and globalization, processes in which the U.S. plays a central role and is a primary beneficiary. Immigration policy is at the nexus of domestic and foreign policy.

As I prepared for my research trip in the Spring of 2007 the nation was in the midst of a heated debate about immigration reform. These debates went to the core of who "we" are as an immigrant nation, the cultural, philosophical and political qualities that define who "belongs" in the U.S.

Between the calls for amnesty, guest worker programs, border walls, and the repeal of birthright citizenship, a rampant xenophobia tinged, and continues to inform, the debate as many people expressed their fears that Spanish would supplant English as the national language, that a vast conspiracy was at work in which Mexico was planning to re-take the Southwestern states, that new immigrants were "dumbing-down" the nation or stealing jobs, social services, and education without paying taxes--to name but a few of the more salient issues.

Much of the anxiety regarding demographic change has been primarily projected onto the undocumented population of Latinos in the U.S.; this is true despite the fact that these trends would hold true even if the rate of entry into the U.S. by undocumented migrants was to be stopped completely. Inflammatory rhetoric notwithstanding, the facts of how undocumented immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy are often overlooked or mis-represented.

According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, undocumented workers contribute $8.5 billion to Social Security and Medicare annually--a contribution that supports maintaining the viability of these programs that they will never benefit from. Researchers have verified that at the federal level undocumented workers pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits and proportionately use less state and local benefits than do other populations (See Owens, Meyerson, and Otteson pps 15-18). A 2007 report from the President's Economic Council of Advisers notes that "Wage gains from immigration are between thirty and eighty billion per year."

Recent reports assessing the impact of immigration on local economies, such as the Wilder Foundation's A New Age of Immigrants: Making Immigration Work for Minnesota, argue that concerns about the competition for jobs between U.S. citizens and undocumented migrants reveals that though it is true that there is likely a negative impact for those workers in direct competition for jobs and those in smaller communities, employers report great difficulty in finding native-born applicants for many jobs in agriculture, meat packing, poultry processing, and manufacturing. This is particularly true in rural areas across the country (Owens, et al, 22-28).

This, of course, has to be considered in relation to the settlement patterns of contemporary immigrants from Latin America into the U.S. Their settlement in regions of the United States that heretofore had little permanent presence of Latinos has changed the cultural geography of the country.

As a result of failed efforts to pass federal comprehensive immigration reform in the summer of 2007, the issue emerged as a heated topic in the 2008 presidential elections. This debate was not divided along traditional partisan lines as it was spurred, in part, by tensions between a normally conservative business sector that benefits from immigrant labor in the manufacturing, agricultural, and construction industries and social conservatives who decried that the fabric of American culture was being threatened by insurmountable linguistic and cultural differences that were incongruous with American values.

Not insignificantly, these concerns have been sparked by the emergence of Latinos as the nation's largest ethnic minority and the rapid demographic change in regions that had been heretofore either relatively culturally homogeneous, particularly in the Midwest and some parts of the Northeast, as well as in the South which had heretofore understood social relations through the lens of a traditional black-white paradigm. Perceptions of an intense workforce competition also emerged as social conservatives strove to argue that there was a one-to-one correspondence between unemployment among "legal" citizens and the presence of "illegal" workers.

Two phenomena further fanned the fires of the national debate following the December 2005 passage of H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, by the U.S. House of Representatives. This controversial bill raised the stakes of the debate by requiring the construction of a border fence, modified the status of "unlawful presence" to a felony, and, among other harsh provisions, authorized state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Though this bill stalled in the Senate, it was followed by the 2006 passage of the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a local ordinance in Hazelton, Pennsylvania that declared English as its official language, fined employers for employing undocumented workers, made it illegal to rent housing to those without documentation of citizenship, and served as a model for more than 100 municipalities around the country.

Faced with an increasingly hostile national and local climate, immigrant right activists organized two massive multi-ethnic marches in the Spring of 2006 in multiple cities and towns across the country. The purpose of these campaigns was to make visible the large number of workers, families, and broad-based support that existed for immigrants as workers, family and community members.

As we consider the still emergent economic and political clout wielded by Latinos, whose population will double in a few short decades and who will continue to be the largest ethnic minority as the nation inevitably becomes majority-minority in less than three decades, it is also important to remember three important facts about our presence so we are not conceived solely as a new immigrant population: 1) our complex, albeit controversial, "indigenous" relationship to the land that precedes the establishment of the U.S. as a nation state, 2) the foundation of our presence in the U.S. results from our absorption into the state as a result of imperial conquest, and 3) the fact that large segments of the Latino population have entered the U.S. through legal means. This last point, in particular, deserves emphasis as immigration policy has historically played a crucial gate-keeping role in determining the cultural and ethnic composition of the U.S.

There is no question that Latinos played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the 2008 election as approximately 67 percent of their votes favored the election of Barack Obama. Such political clout in the face of their ongoing rise in numbers of eligible voters also informs the immigration debate and has been shaped by previous immigration reform efforts. The contemporary trend towards increasing diversity of this country has its roots in the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act.

As was noted in a recent Boston Globe article, the impact of this legislation "arguably rivals the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare, or other legislative landmarks of the era. It transformed a nation 85 percent white in 1965 into one that's one-third minority today, and on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042" (Peter S. Canellos, November 11, 2008). In the four decades since 1968, when this law went into effect, the vast majority of new immigrants coming into this country have been from Asia and Latin America. The demise of the national origins quota system under the Hart-Celler Act favoring European immigrants has profoundly altered (for better or worse) our national sense of identity and commitment to the application of civil rights laws designed to promote equitable opportunities and protection under the law. Advocates of the Hart-Celler Act assured opponents that their intention was to eradicate bias in immigration laws as part of a larger civil rights platform to diminish systemic inequities; no one foresaw the dramatic impact this reform would have on the nation's demographics four decades later.

Information Trumps Ignorance: Hope for the Future?

Originally from Texas, my experience in Minnesota has taught me several things--most fundamentally, that experience and information trumps ignorance almost all the time. Just as this is true for those whose preconceptions have led them to believe that Latinos represent a threat to their way of life, safety, or standard of living, I, too, have learned that the only constant in culture and society is change and adaptation. As I traveled through small towns in West Texas where being stopped for being brown (or being "meskin") was all the probable cause needed in the 1960s, I was impressed and surprised at how much things have changed and how relationships were more complex and layered than these communities once were.

In these small communities where Friday night high school football is king and civil rights movements were once sparked by resistance to exclusion on the cheerleading squad, the local newspapers report on teams now comprised of a majority of Latinos. These newspaper stories reflecting profound everyday changes in the composition of local communities resonated with a story I heard about a basketball team in Melrose, Minnesota that refused to continue a game when an opposing player spat out a racial slur against their Latino teammate before an apology was made. This anecdote contrasts sharply with one shared by Rogelio Núñez in South Texas where local basketball fans taunted opponents by threatening to call la migra.

I returned from my research trip with an abundance of emotionally charged stories and insights and renewed by the positive possibilities for the future, even as I maintained d every reason to be pessimistic. A week after Obama's Presidential victory, even as his supporters were at their peak in believing that he would lead a comprehensive immigration reform legislation, national news was marred by the group killing of Marcello Lucero in Long Island. According to an Orlando Sentinel article on Lucero's murder (November 13, 2008), FBI statistics [reveal that] "there were 595 incidents of anti-Hispanic bias in 2007, with 830 victims reported by law enforcement agencies. That's a 40 percent rise from 2003, when there were 426 incidents involving 595 victims." These crimes have not lessened as the economic crisis has only intensified anti-immigrant sentiment. As we enter the fourth year of Obama's presidency, we are witnessing an increase of incidents of hate crimes against Latinos, rampant enforcement of immigration laws, intensification of border security, and zero action on immigration reform.

As I learned from the interviews completed for my book, in the debates raging in small town America, and in the opinion of residents and leaders alike, local leadership makes all the difference on whether a community develops a reputation for being inclusive or exclusive. Many communities have been defined by how they choose to respond to new arrivals. Across the country I have seen the dramatic difference between embracing diversity and acknowledging that it has always been a part of our social fabric or resisting it and cultivating an illusion of cultural homogeneity. However much accommodating difference and change is hard work--communities that embrace newcomers have found that they are made stronger.

Finally, communities that strive to be inclusive by respecting and embracing diversity have adopted a moral and ethical framework that views others as whole human beings with distinct histories, values, and qualities that complement their own and enrich their lives--not threaten it. Evidence of this way of viewing new immigrants is manifest in numerous ways, not the least of which are indicators revealing that people get along quite well, such as the fact that Latinos have the second highest intermarriage rate in the country, as noted by Rogelio Saenz (2004).

At the national level, leadership is needed more than ever. The ongoing economic crisis has ensured that immigration remains a controversial political issue. The 2008 election of Barack Obama and a Democrat majority in Congress did not yield a solution, as they were unable to utilize their power to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform. However, the continuing emergence of Latinos as a political force to be reckoned with provides some basis for hope. This hope, however, has to be tempered by the harsh reality of the persistence of Anti-Latino, especially anti-Mexican, sentiment that drives hate crimes, the desire to create copy cat local and state laws aimed at driving away new immigrants, and the persistent denial that the U.S. economy is dependent on immigrant labor and thus the well-being of this country is intertwined with the well-being of those whom are too easily dismissed as dispensable outsiders.

Leaders must lead, and though one may understand why President Obama has been unable to tackle immigration reform in the face of a sustained and devastating financial crisis, unemployment, two wars, and so on, the extreme hateful rhetoric that emerges as a result of legislative efforts like Arizona's SB1070 may finally compel us to act as the world watches us once again forget our own history and the fascist rhetoric of anti-immigrants assumes a prominent place on the world stage and places us in company with nations we purport to be better than. Though the immigration debate is ostensibly about immigrants and the law, anyone who has experienced social marginalization knows that it's about much more. Notions of the law, legal status, and belonging are intimately intertwined and often pitted against one another. This is why this book is about the Latinoization of the country and not just about immigration. Latinos' pursuit of social justice and equity do not start and stop at the border. While it's not necessarily the case that if people just knew the interrelated history and facts about the economic interdependency between the U.S. and Latin America, then the immigration dilemma would be resolved, any honest assessment of why we have such difficulty with expanding our sense of who belongs has to begin with the identification of why so many fear demographic and cultural change. The rise in numbers as well as the new geography of Latino demographic change mandate different conversations about inclusion and exclusion.

Conversations Across Our America provides only a glimpse into the dynamics associated with an enormously complex and contentious issue--one that, if it is to be resolved, will require a diligent and protracted effort to lead us to a place where we gain new insight not only into our common ground but our mutual destiny with the occupants of not just the U.S. but the Americas. We sit at yet another important crossroads in U.S. history where we once again are confronted with the choice between being the very best we can imagine being, or continue being a nation willfully blind to its past and its future. Can our compassion for others be greater than our fear that "we" will change? Need we strive to maintain a fantasy that "we" are a mono-cultural nation incapable of changes we ourselves have wrought on the world? Are we once again confronting our inability to grasp that "they" are "us"?

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This page contains a single entry by Lisa SZ published on November 15, 2011 10:18 AM.

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