Latin American Immigrants: Civic and Political Participation in the Washington DC-Metro Area
Welcome and Introduction
Andrew Selee, Director, Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute
Philippa Strum, Director, Woodrow Wilson Center Division of United States Studies
Xóchitl Bada, Consulting Coordinator, Initiative on Latin American Immigrant Civic and Political Participation, Woodrow Wilson Center and Researcher, University of Notre Dame
The DC landscape: How immigrants are integrating in our nation's capital and the challenges they face
Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Vice President, Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation, NCLR
Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution
Michael Fix, Vice President and Director of Studies, Migration Policy Institute
Moderator: Leni González, State Director, LULAC-Virginia
On November 1, 2007 community leaders, immigration scholars and elected officials gathered to discuss the civic and political participation of the Washington Metropolitan Area's largest immigrant group, Latin Americans. The conference was part of a national study founded by the MacArthur Foundation that looks at Latin American immigrants and their role as social, civic and political actors in seven cities around the United States. Philippa Strum welcomed the panelists to a timely discussion on the issue currently at the top of the U.S. policy agenda: immigrant integration. Andrew Selee noted that Washington, DC is an especially interesting case, not only because it is our home, but because it provides a unique environment where local issues are addressed within the national context. This city has seen its identity evolve in the past twenty years with the influx of immigrants from Latin America and around the world. Organizations that once focused primarily on social services are today the seat of advocacy and political activism both locally and nationwide. Selee asserted that the Latin American immigrant community is diverse, energized and has new leadership that is facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities for strategy.
Xóchitl Bada pointed out that the activism we are observing today in the Latin American community, most widely seen in the outpouring of participants during the marches and rallies in the spring of 2006, is in fact a product of a long process of quiet grassroots organizing that has been going on for much longer than the past few years. The purpose of the national study is to give understanding to how immigrants are transforming the social fabric in the communities where they live—in this case in Washington, DC and its surrounding suburbs. Leni González emphasized that not only are immigrants learning how to participate, and doing so increasingly, they are learning why it is important for their voices to be heard. They want to learn English and be a part of the political process in this country. However, she noted, often elected officials do not represent their needs.
Audrey Singer gave a demographic outline of the Latin American population in the DC-Metro Area, noting that there has been such rapid growth in recent years that 1/3 of the current population arrived after the year 2000. She commented that with this growth the population has broadened from a base of professionals who came to work for international organizations to a diverse group from all over the region who took advantage of the increasingly available jobs in the service and construction industries. Singer mentioned that although the DC region is and has been one of the most diverse immigrant cities in the country, the dominant nationalities among Latin Americans have changed. South American and Caribbean immigrants groups, formerly the majority, have been replaced by Central Americans as the largest group, now representing over 60% of the Latin American immigrant population. This influx was due in much part to the scores of people who came fleeing the Central American wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Singer also pointed out that the fastest growth has been in the DC-Metro suburbs, specifically in Prince William and Prince George's counties. She asserted that the frequency and quantity of data regarding the Latin American population continues to increase, and it is important to utilize it in order to accurately frame the discussion surrounding the issue of immigration.
In his presentation of the Migration Policy Institute's study on taxes paid by immigrants in the DC-Metro Area, Michael Fix challenged the common perception that Latin American immigrants do no pay their share of taxes. He noted that the amount of taxes paid by immigrants is roughly proportional to their share of the population. Fix also pointed out that about 80% of immigrants in the region are in fact here legally. He attributed cases of lower rates of paid taxes to a lack of English proficiency and education. The study showed that the level of taxes paid and household income are directly correlated with the ability to speak English and legal status. Fix argued by providing legal permanent status, immigrant tax contribution will increase.
Cecilia Muñoz asseted that the multi-faceted nature of the Latin American population in the DC region brings about the question of identity, and whether people see themselves as separate groups based on nationality or legal status, or part of a larger community with a common goal. She noted that the longer a foreign-born group has lived in its community in the U.S. the less they focus on their country of origin and the more they develop the infrastructure to address local issues and advocate for change. In DC this is especially true, where community organizations have developed structurally and increased in numbers over time. What were organizations led by U.S. born directors and focusing on providing services are now immigrant-led organizations leading the way nationally in organizing the community towards political and civic action. Muñoz commented that the hostile climate against the general Latino population in the area has been a common enemy that has united the U.S. born Latino population with the immigrant community, and acted as an impetus for active participation in marches, protests and boycotts. According to the NCLR poll of the spring 2006 marches, one third of all voting adult Latinos and half of younger voters surveyed participated or knew someone who did.
Civic and Political Leadership: From the shadows to the statehouse
Ana Sol Gutierrez, Delegate, Maryland House of Delegates
Walter Tejada, Vice Chairman, Arlington County Board
Pedro Avilés, Executive Director, National Capital Immigrant Coalition
Mercedes Lemp, Director, Office on Latino Affairs, Office of the Mayor of Washington, D.C.
Moderator: Marcela Sánchez, Columnist, The Washington Post
In response to Marcela Sánchez' question of where activism begins, Ana Sol Gutierrez stated that you simply learn with experience. She emphasized that it is this experience that is lacking in the Latino community, where organizations lack the political organizing skills necessary to understand the how to work with the government. She stressed that learning how the political process and public policy work is vital in order to successfully advocate your cause. She cited community commissions as good examples of where people can start out. Mercedes Lemp added that neighborhood associations and school PTAs are other places where it is easy to get involved and gain experience.
Walter Tejada agreed that life experience is key, and reiterated that getting involved at the local level is a good way to start out. He suggested his three-pronged strategy to making a difference: offering constructive criticism, suggesting a solution, and then being a part of that solution's implementation. Pedro Avilés pointed out that motivation for activism often comes from being angry or frustrated. He noted that although the culture of volunteerism in Latin America does not exist like it does in the U.S., immigrants here become involved in their communities through the Church, schools and other informal settings in order to address problems on the local level.
Marcela Sánchez asked the panelists to address the challenges to immigrant activism in the DC-Metro Area. Delegate Gutierrez emphasized that while actions like the protests and marches that have taken place in Prince William County and other areas in the region are important, they are not enough; sustained political engagement is what will truly make a difference. Pedro Avilés mentioned specific factors that prevent activism including language barriers, lack of resources, lack of time to give, and organization. Mercedes Lemp pointed out that in the District there is a better climate for activism than in the suburbs. She cited the Language Access Act as one example of a District policy that caters to the needs of immigrants. She also encouraged bodies such as PTAs to be creative in how they can participate civically. To address the challenges presented, Walter Tejada advocated coalition building with other communities in the region around common interests such as education and health. He also commented that leadership skills used for local events and fundraisers can and should be translated to broader civic activism. Finally, he called on the community to utilize English language media to change perceptions and spread accurate and positive messages.