Monday, July 12, 2004

Latino immigrants face challenges, bring hope / News / Boston Globe / Opinion / Op-ed / Latino immigrants face challenges, bring hope

Latino immigrants face challenges, bring hope
By Micho Fernandez Spring and Frieda Garcia | July 12, 2004

THE UPCOMING Democratic National Convention marks a historic moment for our city. As the first convention of a major political party to be chaired by a Latino - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson - it is also a historic event for the nation. It's fitting that those two moments are converging here in Boston, a city whose economy and social fabric have been tremendously strengthened by the influx of Latinos and other immigrants over the past several decades.

This week, which Boston has set aside to celebrate diversity as the convention approaches, offers an opportunity to contemplate how we can harness the growing economic, political, and cultural potential not only of Latino immigrants, but also of Puerto Rican citizens who live here.

It's been nearly 40 years since Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965, dramatically lifting barriers to foreigners seeking to settle in our country. The wave of immigration that ensued had a welcome, if unforeseen, result: Immigrants have driven urban renewal, cultural enrichment, and economic growth.

Here in Massachusetts, our economy hinges on immigration. A study by MassINC showed that immigrants contributed 200,000 workers to our labor force in the 1990s alone. The political clout of Latinos is also increasingly evident, with more and more Latinos voting, running for office, and being elected.

Immigrants also offer another commodity, one rarer than economic or political power and even more important to Boston's future: They offer hope. Immigrants - who have uprooted themselves and traveled great distances against long odds and amid enormous uncertainty in search of a better life, as our families did - are quintessentially hopeful people. They are survivors who have, by the time of their arrival in our country, already overcome a great deal.

If what Latino immigrants offer - economic growth, social and cultural enrichment, and an influx of hope and optimism - are important to Boston's future, it isn't enough simply to welcome them. Our city must aggressively compete for them.

For Boston, that requires creative and forward thinking. For the most part, we aren't a port of entry for Latino immigrants, and our weather doesn't exactly evoke warm memories of home.

In order to compete effectively, we have to celebrate our assets, but we must also confront real challenges. Immigrant income still lags considerably behind that of natives. The percentage of Latino young people going to college is both tragically low and disconcertingly stagnant. And the disbanding last year of the Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce suggests that our Latino community's social and business infrastructure must be enhanced.

We must address those challenges. Boston should aggressively support Latino institutions and nurture Latino leadership. Fortunately, positive developments are occurring. The Mayor's Office for New Bostonians has worked hard to increase voter registration rates in newcomer immigrant communities in Boston. The Boston Foundation is facilitating greater dialogue between Latino leaders across sectors. And cultural institutions like the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center underscore the positive role the arts can have in bridging cultural differences.

Moreover, our immigration laws must enable those who are already here to contribute productively to our community. Laws that prevent undocumented young people from attending public universities at in-state tuition rates are understandable attempts to encourage compliance with immigration rules, but they have the unintended and unwelcome consequence of fueling a higher drop-out rate among Latinos.

To be sure, not everyone agrees that Latino immigration should be encouraged. In his recent book ''Who Are We?'' Harvard professor Samuel Huntington suggests that immigration - especially of Spanish-speaking immigrants - threatens to fracture America's cultural identity.

We disagree. America's cultural identity is rooted in hope and opportunity, not race or language, and it is those commodities that immigrants offer in greatest supply. No one, after all, knows that better than Red Sox Nation, whose hopes and dreams lie with four Latinos named Pedro, Manny, Nomar, and David Ortiz.

The reality is that Latino immigrants will create enormous economic opportunities for the communities in which they decide to locate. As they have for the last several decades, they will continue to strengthen the cultural and social fabric of urban areas and American culture as a whole. And as they were in Boston's municipal elections last fall, they will be a powerful political force.

These trends are indisputable fact. For Boston, the only question is whether we will benefit from them. If we hope to, we must take a much more proactive approach to attract and retain Latino talent, and nurture institutions that will support them. The upcoming Democratic National Convention - a seminal moment for both Boston and Latino history - is a perfect time to start.


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