Latino Nation – Panel discussion, Part 1

Our broadcast of this very special gathering challenges stereotypes and provides a deeper understanding of the increasingly powerful Latino community.

America's 50-million-strong Latino community flexed its historic political muscle in the 2012 elections, evidencing the community's growing influence. Now, as the immigration debate unfolds in Washington, Tavis moderates a national conversation on the challenges and opportunities facing this diverse group.

Hosted in partnership with the William C. Velásquez Institute, "Latino Nation: Beyond The Numbers" panelists examine a full range of Latino social, political, economic and cultural influence on American life, from the economy to politics, healthcare to education, immigration to foreign policy, as well as solutions for economic growth in this vital community.

Guests include:

Antonio González, president of the William C. Velásquez Institute; Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-IL; Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF; Stephanie Sanchez, student trustee board member of Chicago State University; Bettina Inclán, Republican political strategist; and others. [Click here to see list of guests.]


Tavis: (Applause) Hello, my name is Tavis Smiley and I am honored to be moderator for this conversation called “Latino Nation: Beyond The Numbers.” Let me ask you to welcome our panel, for those in the audience. (Applause)

When you say “beyond the numbers,” this calls up the fact that the numbers are clear. This community is growing exponentially in America. Twenty-five percent of our students in school identify as Latinos, and so this is the new America.

We’re going to have to come to terms with what it means, what these numbers, that is, mean for the future of this great nation. I want to start with my friend Tom Saenz, to my left here, from MALDEF.

I think the place to start today, while we’ll get to immigration reform, is not with immigration, because there is another issue that I think impacts, concerns, and quite frankly is causing all of us to be a bit fearful, and that is these new unemployment numbers.

Everybody is in trouble. I don’t care if you’re Black, red, brown, white, yellow – everybody seems to be in trouble in this economy, but it’s had a particular impact on the Latino community. Two-thirds, a full two-thirds of the wealth in this community was lost due to this so-called “Great Recession.” Just give me some sense of what the impact of this recession has been economically on the Latino community.

Thomas A. Saenz: Well, I think the numbers that you’ve given illustrate the devastating impact of an economic downturn, and it’s particularly going to hit communities like the Latino community, where the extent of wealth development is not as mature as it is in the white community, for example, where the extent of ability to bounce back from employment challenges is not as deep because of some of the longstanding issues that we’ll talk about today, including the continuing education gap for the Latino community and the African American community, which is a problem not just for those communities but for the entire nation.

Tavis: How would you juxtapose, then, the notion that in the last presidential election cycle, this community, the Latino community, flexed its muscle like we’ve never seen before? So the political muscle is growing, and yet this economic downturn is sucking the lifeblood out of many families.

Saenz: Well, I think you reconcile the two by recognizing that as important as all of the attention to immigration that came out of the pundits’ analysis of that election, really, it was an election about multiple other issues, starting with elimination the discrimination issues.

It includes immigration reform, because all of this is tied together, of course. So much of the negative stereotyping that is tied to a lot of the anti-immigration lawmaking and rhetoric that we’ve seen too much in this country has economic impacts as well.

Not only on the immigrant community, but on the entire Latino community, because so much of that stereotyping then bleeds into how people make decisions, everyday decisions about who they’re going to employ, who they want to hire, who they’re interested in helping to promote their future education and skills development.

It’s clear that we need to have laws that are modernized to really address the impacts that we see today. You don’t yet know the immediate and longer-term impacts of some of that demonization of the entire Latino community.

The economy is such that lots of folks are afraid of losing their job, the job that they’ve got, the benefits that come with that job, if those benefits come. Therefore, I think there are too many employers – not nearly all of them, and you know that. The vast majority of employers are following the law. But too many of them may conclude that that economic situation means that they can get away with violations that they otherwise wouldn’t take the chance of engaging in.

Tavis: I think I’m going to lean to my left and go to Hector Barreto. Hector at one point was the administrator for the Small Business Administration, and now is with the Latino Coalition. But Hector, Thomas said a number of things that I want to come to you on now.

Specifically about business – talk to me about the impact of this recession specifically on small business.

Hector Barreto: Well, as Tom said, it’s been significant. There’s some people in our community that will say that when times are going well, there are pockets of the Latino community that are in recession. When we’re in a recession, there are pockets in the Hispanic community that are in a depression.

When I was at SBA, we used to study the trends. The fastest-growing segment of small business in the United States was Hispanic-owned businesses, and I believe it still is. By the way, that represents about three million companies in the United States.

Those companies are generating about $500 billion in revenue, and those numbers could double every five years. They are the engine of America. A lot of those small businesses are not thriving right now, and by the way, those three million Hispanic businesses employ millions of Latinos.

Sometimes, small businesses feel that their government doesn’t really understand what they do every day. They don’t feel like they have a strong advocate or partner for them. Sometimes they feel on the defensive by their own government.

I’m not talking about just federal government, state government, local government, et cetera.

Tavis: Government – Luis Gutierrez, congressman from the great state of Illinois. We’re going to get to immigration, as I promised, in this conversation, because it can’t be avoided, nor should it be.

But while we’re talking about the economy and the fact, as Hector suggests, that so many small businesses feel like government is in the way, that increasing regulation, et cetera, is making it more difficult for them to advance their businesses and their entrepreneurial spirit and genius.

What say you about his indictment that many people still feel that government is in the way?

Rep. Luis Gutierrez: I think that government can do more to stimulate job opportunities and job growth in our communities. But when I look at jobs, I also want the American public to know that when you think of Latinos, the impact is not going to be the same throughout the Latino community.

There are – number one, I want everybody to know that most Latinos in the United States are citizens of the United States, and here legally. Some of us have been here for generations – more than generations; for centuries. Others have arrived five years ago, 10 years ago, but we’re a community of families.

So I want people to know that, but at the same time I want government to be there, because there’s one really sad fact, and that is that it’s great to see that OSHA and that the federal government, through its practices, is decreasing the number of people that get hurt where they go to work. That’s good.

People should go to work, put in a good day’s work for a fair salary. The deaths also are decreasing. But as that’s happening, overall within our workplace population it’s increasing among Latinos. That is, more Latinos – two die every day working somewhere, and Latinos tend to get hurt more than any – so it’s an increase.

So from a macro perspective, great, the workforce is safer. From a perspective of Latinos, it’s not as safe.

Tavis: You’ve said so many things I want to follow up on. I want to start first, Congressman, with this notion of these two Hispanics per day who die in the workplace. That is – it’s not just a shame; it’s a moral disgrace that that happens in this country on a daily basis.

Before we jump straightaway into immigration, talk to me a bit more about the ways that these workers are exploited, maltreated, and at times killed, on the job.

Gutierrez: The fact is that it’s happening. The statistics bear it out. They don’t get the training that they should get. They don’t understand, and how would I say – they’re not trained and inspired to dial 911 and to call to protect their rights.

But depending on where you’re at – so if you’re in a state like Illinois, you’ll probably do better because you have a governor and a mayor and a political system that has a history of being there on your side.

But if you’re in Mississippi, and I know people who are, “Latinos? Mississippi?” Yeah. Some of the largest growth of Latinos in the United States is in the South of the United States of America.

I went 40 – I was talking to Ana. I went 45 minutes outside of Orlando, and there were 500 migrant workers. You know what they said to me? “Can you help us with the police? I just want to be able to come and shop.” “Can you help us?” Here’s what happens – “I don’t get paid because they don’t feel I have a recourse to demand payment for my work.”

So part of it is – and the other part, I think, just as overall, look, let’s make sure that these 11 million people that are so important to us as a community of people, the 20 percent of Latinos that are undocumented in the United States of America, they’re important too, because as they gain rights, so do the salaries, wages, benefits of everyone else.

Because now you’ve got employers that can’t pick and choose one against the other. I think that was an important vote last November 2nd. It’s not the picking of winners and losers and picking one group against another.

Tavis: Since we’re in this now, let me go to the other end of this stage here to Mary Rose Wilcox. She is a supervisor out of the great state of Arizona.

Mary Rose Wilcox: Yes.

Tavis: Arizona, as we all know, has been ground zero, as it were, for this conversation about immigration which is now happening in Washington. We will see if in the coming weeks or months, hopefully not years, meaningful immigration reform is reached in Washington.

But I thought I might come to you first, since the congressman has moved us in that direction, to get a sense of what has happened in Arizona over the last few years, what is the state of – I can’t say state of the union. I’ll say what is the state of Arizona? What’s happening out there?

Wilcox: We do feel very isolated at times.

Tavis: Yeah.

Wilcox: So thank you, first of all, for having us here. Arizona has just gone through hell the last five years. We are a state where it just got turned around entirely and immigration became a prime issue. We had a thriving community. We have always had an ebb and flow across the border, of workers.

We’re a large agricultural state, we’re a large hospitality, tourism state, and workers are needed. The ebb and flow across the border had been just a natural thing for Arizona. Many of us are third and fourth generation of families, Mexican American, with roots in Mexico, and many of our families still have relatives there.

When 9/11 occurred and the border shut down, people were trapped in our country, and many people started bringing families up illegally. People just started to see the growth of the Hispanic community, and there became a very repressive movement.

People got worried, they got afraid that jobs were going to be taken by people that weren’t looking like other Arizonans, or what they thought they should look like, and people started saying everybody should be a terrorist who comes from that country, we have to be careful.

The backlash in Arizona was tremendous. You saw legislation coming up, and nobody said anything because everybody was very afraid. Everybody was very afraid that they would lose jobs, they would lose political positions, and the culture got created that bills started coming out of our legislators that was very repressive.

We were doing E-Verify before the rest of the nation, and that set up a really hard situation for jobs that you were talking about, because if you looked Latino, if you had a Latino last name, all of a sudden you were the one who wasn’t called for the job. You were the one that people hesitated, because then I’ll be questioned if they’re undocumented.

So little by little it got worse and worse, and we now have a situation that SB 1070 was passed. The Supreme Court has overturned parts of it thanks to MALDEF, the ACLU and other entities. But we are still living in a very hard society.

It’s getting a little better now that the Supreme Court has acted on parts of 1070, but police departments and police chiefs have stood up and said, “This is enough. We must get immigration reform, because we cannot get cooperation in many of the parts of our city that need police coverage,” but everybody’s afraid to talk to them, because they have no idea what will happen. So the fear is there.

Tavis: I’m glad you told those, shared those stories, because as I intimated earlier, I think part of what gets lost in these conversations, particularly about the issue of immigration, is the humanity. We never seem to focus in on the humanity of these everyday people and of these fellow citizens.

My friend Antonio Gonzalez, he wears a couple of hats. He’s the president of the William C. Velazquez Institute; he’s also the president of the Southwest Voter Education Project. Just the other day we were talking on the phone about the issue of immigration reform, and we got into this really fascinating conversation paralleling the struggle of the African American community and the Latino community.

For those of you who know your history, I won’t take time here, precious television time, to go through this, but for those who know your history, you know that what happened in my community, in our community, was not that there was one major piece of legislation passed at one time that was the end-all, be-all.

And yet I sense, and Antonio and I were in this conversation, that some believe that one major piece of legislation on immigration is going not solve all the problems that now exist inside the Latino community. So I don’t want to get into the weeds, so to speak, but let’s talk macro about how you see this playing itself out over not just the next few weeks, not just the next few months, but over years, to level the playing field for the Latino community.

Antonio Gonzalez: I am hopeful that Luis Gutierrez’s leadership will be successful in Washington, D.C., and we’ll get a comprehensive reform that is beneficial to our community.

But I’m also mindful of the history of immigration reform. The last immigration reform that we did that had a legalization component, IRCA, in 1986, also had a repressive component, employer sanctions, that drove immigrants further underground and made them even more exploitable.

I’m concerned that this kind of something good and something bad formula will be combined again in this reform. I hope not, but I draw inspiration from the African American example of the civil rights movement, in which – and I think this is a little-known fact – civil rights did not come to America in one bill in 1964.

So literally what you had was an 11-year wave of good bills that addressed the problem. My point is this cycle, we should get the best deal possible. But it should be a good deal. If we don’t, then we should continue, given that they say we have all this political power, 15 million registered voters, next cycle it’ll be 18 million, then it’ll be 20 million.

Given that we have all this political power, that this fight may go on, and if we don’t get a good bill we should fight, continue to fight, for a good bill.

Tavis: Enter Ana Navarro, Republican political strategist. Give me your read as to whether or not there is going to be bipartisanship forthcoming on this issue.

Ana Navarro: I don’t think there’s going to be bipartisanship, I think there is bipartisanship. We are seeing what we don’t see in Congress or Washington in this White House. We haven’t seen it in many years, where legislation is actually emanating out of the legislative branch.

They’re doing it on their own; they’re doing it in a bipartisan fashion. We’re talking about the President Obama that just won a reelection with 71 percent of the Latino vote and understands there is a debt and we will not let him off the hook a second time.

He better understand, as we need to understand, Republicans also, that he’s dealing with a much more sophisticated, seasoned, scarred Hispanic community that understands when we are (applause) being played.

I think both parties at this point understand that the cost of not doing it is far greater than the cost of doing it.

Tavis: So Congressman Gutierrez, Antonio Gonzalez, Ana Navarro have all, in their own way, talked about the history, the history of this fight and this struggle where immigration is concerned. Hence my wanting to make sure that a historian was on the panel today to help us properly contextualize this.

So without coloring the question too much, vis-à-vis the history, David, what are your thoughts on what you’ve heard so far on this immigration conversation?

David Montejano: Well, I’d like to weave together a couple of points I’ve heard over the last few minutes. I think this point about political leadership is critical. The political leadership of each state and of the nation obviously not only sets the policy agenda, but it influences the political culture that we live in.

So what we see in Arizona, for example, this politics of paranoia or fear – by the way, a classic Southern gambit, by the way. This was well-practiced in Southern politics, to create a boogieman, usually race. If not race, then your criminal element or labor, communist labor unions, whatever.

That’s essentially what’s going on in Arizona, where you have a number of essentially opportunistic politicians using the politics of fear and paranoia in order to gain election and promote their own campaigns.

The only way to change this is through we need courageous political leadership to stand up, take a firm stand, and say, “This is not what our country’s about.”

Tavis: Earlier, Hector Barreto used the word “environment” three or four times, by my count. The environment that he was talking about was an environment that needed to be more friendly to small business in America.

But the environment that I now want to talk about is the environment that many of these persons that we’re talking about, giving a path to citizenship, have to navigate every single day. In my research, I discovered, which didn’t surprise me, that not unlike the African American community or other poor communities, this issue of environmental racism is real.

So I wanted to make sure that in this conversation that we had Adriana Quintero, who is with the National Resources Defense Council. So this is the work that she does every single day at NRDC, and I wonder if you just might – we’ll get deeper into this, Adriana, but I wonder if you might just give me some sense, give us some sense of what the issues are vis-à-vis the environment.

Adriana Quintero: Yeah, Tavis, it’s really important, and I’m glad that you tied it back in to what Congressman Gutierrez said, because that’s exactly it. The reason we have people dying daily is because many of these people are in the shadows. They can go unaccounted for. They can be ignored.

If a child lives here in the Chicago area, in Pilsen, they’ve had to deal with walking outside and having some of the highest asthma rates in the country. Same thing happens in Los Angeles. One out of two Latinos, very similar to African Americans, in fact, is living in an area that does not meet air quality standards today.

The reason it ties in so closely to immigration is because until we have a way to empower people to actually speak up for themselves, protect themselves, they’re going to be continuously discriminated against environmentally as well.

So whether it’s citings or whether it’s simply having to pay more for healthcare simply because you are subject to trucks running through your neighborhood constantly and this absolute disregard for these communities’ needs and health, you’re going to have a disproportionate impact. That’s what we have today.

Tavis: So let me segue, then, back to these undocumented workers, no matter where they may live, and how we get them on a path to citizenship so they have the rights and the stature and the standing to push back ever more forcefully against these conditions that they find themselves up against. Go.

Gutierrez: I think that we need Republicans and Democrats. Look, the fact is that there are 500,000 young people today who are free from deportation; undocumented youth are free from deportation because the president issued the executive order on deferred action.

So I am working with Republicans cognizant, and I’m happy that Antonio said that this is going to be complicated, because in the end, I think that Ana and all of us, Antonio, and we’re all going to have to come and say to ourselves we’ve got to get the best proposal, the greatest good for the greatest number of people, done.

Tavis: So that’s just the beginning of our dialogue. Join me next time for part two of our critical conversation with our outstanding panel as we take a close look at “Latino Nation: Beyond The Numbers.” Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: September 16, 2013 at 2:08 pm