Latino immigrants and the changing makeup of American democracy

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We’ve talked about immigration several times on this show with good reason. The role that people coming to the United States play in our democracy is an important question and something states, cities, and towns across the country will continue to grapple with as demographics shift.

This week’s guest offers a historical perspective that sets the stage for the debate about immigrants we hear so often today. A.K. Sandoval-Strauss is director of the Latina/o Studies program at Penn State and author of the new book Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.

In the book, and in this conversation, he argues that immigrants moved into cities like Dallas and Chicago and revitalized downtowns that were beginning to hollow out because of white flight and discriminatory practices designed to keep African-Americans out. The same thing, he says, is happening again as Latino immigrants move into smaller cities and towns from Hazleton, Pennsylvania to Sioux City, Iowa — bringing economic and cultural vitality to places industry left behind.

We also discuss the role that Latinos played in the Civil Rights movement, and how that ties into their complicated identity during the 1950s and 60s, as well as what the future looks like as the Latino population increases while other ethnic groups decrease.

Additional Information

Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City

A.K.’s op-ed in The Washington Post

Our sponsor: Penn State World Campus

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Interview Highlights

[8:12] Latino immigration really started to grow in the 1950s and 60s? How did immigrants at that time view themselves? Did they see themselves as part of the Civil Rights movement?

At that point, under American law, they were technically white. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, specified that they were full citizens. However, in actuality they rarely enjoyed full citizenship rights. At the grassroots, there were certainly some sense of commonality in the face of discrimination, but sadly the main Mexican-American civil rights organizations really clung to their status as technically white and often tried to avoid being associated with black people because they felt that that would lead to their being classified as minorities, and discriminated against further. So, there strategy was to really present themselves as like other immigrant stock Americans, and thereby to claim a sort of European ancestry that would entitle them to rights and privileges of whiteness.

[12:40] You devote a whole chapter in your book to the year 1965. Why was that such a big year for this population?

Most commonly recognized is the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, which dramatically expanded the range of people who could come to the United States and become citizens, but which also simultaneously in effect, reduced those kinds of opportunities for Hispanics, and people from Latin America. The other reason was that time was the beginning of a series of agricultural crises in Mexico that drove a substantial number of people to migrate to the United States.

[14:21] How did white flight impact Latino immigrant into American cities?

I think we have to remember that urban America in terms of the total number of people living in cities and the total amount of economic activity happening in cities really peaks in 1950. It begins to decline thereafter, especially because of white flight. Part of that is the story of simple racism of white residents that will not have even one black family as their neighbor. Even if that black family is of a similar economic background just themselves. And the other part of the story is that the United States government subsidizes suburbanization through a number of enactments from highway construction to the mortgage interest deduction. The result of this is that there are overall fewer people living in cities. Remember also, that the African American great migration comes to an end in about the late 1960s. So, literally there is no American born population that is increasing its presence in cities and there are entire neighborhoods with falling populations. As a result, you have falling rents. And that is very attractive to newcomers who are looking for inexpensive places to live.

[16:05] Does Latino representation in government follow the rate of immigration?

As of the late 1960s, at the time of the establishment of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. There are three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. If we want to jump ahead very briefly to the present. Now, where you have four U.S. Senators who are Latino and 39 members of the House of Representatives as a much more commensurate representation. Somewhat less than the 10-11% of votes that are cast by Latinos. And certainly much less than the roughly 17-18% of the population, who are of Hispanic origin.

[19:41] What accounts for the discrepancy in eligible Latino voters and the number of people who actually vote?

Some people are coming from countries in which the government is highly corrupt and unreliable and they don’t necessarily see what advantages they would have through voting or supporting particular candidates for president. Others are just part of a lower-income population, so again lower-income people of all backgrounds tend to vote at a lower rate. There have not necessarily been the voter turnout efforts you might expect.

[22:18] You argue that fear of Latino immigrants comes mostly from people who do not regularly interact with those immigrants. Can you talk a little more about what that dynamic looks like?

I think it’s very important to remind ourselves that, that initial, initial mythology of the blue-collar revolt simply was not true. Subsequent examination of the actual voter data files show that there was no correlation between people who had, had a factory shut down in their community and voting for Donald Trump. There was no correlation in people being in direct competition with immigrants for jobs and voting for Donald Trump. In fact it was not the poorest members of  white communities, but those who were somewhat more well off that were most likely to vote for him. More broadly, it was precisely those people with the most acquaintance with Latino and Latina and other immigrants that were most likely to vote for Hilary Clinton because they simply did not by and large, buy into the anti-immigrant agenda that Trump brought into politics. So, it becomes a sort of cities and inter metropolitan areas versus rural areas divide, whereby those who don’t know very many immigrants were the most likely to want to exclude them

[23:56] Are we now seeing the same population changes happen in small towns that we saw in cities a generation ago?

Between about 1970 and the 2010s immigrant Latinos were the single biggest factor in solving a huge problem of 20th century America, the Urban Crisis, and turning the cities around. Now there’s rural areas that are suffering some of those same kinds of symptoms, right? Depopulation, aging of the population, lack of economic opportunities, and a lot of rising drug addiction and crime. When you have declining native-born populations and you desperately need new residents, new workers, new school children, new baseball players that Latinos are the solution to this newer problem as well. And again, ironically, some of the places most dependent upon immigration generally, including Latino immigration, which is the sort of single biggest part of it, are where you see the greatest negative reactions.

[27:18] What’s the way forward from here?

I think it’s very important to recognize that, you know, as you say, some of these candidates will be themselves Latinos some will not. So, Mark Levin for example, who is representative the 39th district of California, which is coastline between Long Beach and San Diego, he’s not a Latino guy but he’s part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus precisely because he understands that part of his responsibilities are  looking after his constituents. So, again the GOP had made dramatic strides in that direction beginning with the 2013 growth and opportunity  program report also called the, the autopsy of the 2012 election where they said, you know, “We must make progress on courting Latino votes, especially by not being anti-immigration.”  One might in the interest national well being, hope to see a return to a more sane attitude toward immigration given the fact that the United States desperately needs more people, but that seems not to have figured into the current GOP strategy.



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