Latinos have been stuck between a rock and a hard place. In 2010, Republican state legislatures began an aggressive anti-immigrant campaign. At the same time, Latinos witnessed the administration fail to follow through on its promise for comprehensive immigration reform. Considering how both parties did or didn’t deal with the issue of immigration, it would not be surprising to see Latinos turn away from both parties. However, the issue of immigration alone does not define Latino interests—and moving beyond this single-issue focus will position the Democratic Party as the choice, not just the default option, for Latinos.
The concerns of Latinos are the same concerns of any other folks in the United States. In fact, issues related to the economy, education or healthcare are of even greater concern to Latinos than to non-Latinos. Latinos suffered the greatest decline in wealth during the recession, have the highest high school dropout rates and have the fastest growing rate of childhood obesity. There is no single box in which to fit Latino issues. But the temptation to do so has not prevented Latinos and non-Latinos alike from using the immigration box.
The administration has recognized that it in the past it was guilty of reaching out to the community through a disproportionate emphasis on immigration. In the second half of his administration the president has sought to broaden his engagement with Latinos. This effort began with the White House Hispanic Policy Conference last July that brought Latino leaders to Washington to strategize how to meet the diverse needs of the Latino community.
The Hispanic Policy Conference was a good first step. But ultimately this was a Beltway function that brought together the usual suspects of Latino leaders. What has been truly unique about this effort is the development of two dozen community action summits across the country. White House officials have packed up and taken the conversation on the road to explain how the president’s agenda has affected the Latino community and to learn and listen from these different communities.
The White House Hispanic Community Action Summits connect the dots about how policies otherwise thought of as non-Latino are tangibly affecting Latino communities. For example, through the Small Business Jobs act, over $800,000 in loans were made to Latino small businesses. And through the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, 150,000 additional Pell Grant awards will be made to Latino students. Environmental actions such as regulating emissions have also had a large effect on the Latino community, given that over 70 percent of Latinos live in places that do not meet US air pollution standards.
It is one thing to look at the economic development data for Cleveland, Ohio, and another to sit in a room with Latino Clevelanders as the administration did earlier this year. Just as important as disseminating information are seeing and hearing firsthand how policies translate onto the local level and can be improved. Summits have been held across the country including in Orlando, Milwaukee and, most recently, San Antonio. In conjunction with today’s San Antonio summit, the White House has released a report on the Hispanic Community Agenda that discusses how the administration’s policies, from the Wall Street Reform Bill to the regulation of coal-fired plants, have affected Latinos.
In establishing the community summits, the president has gone back to his roots of connecting with people on a local level. The administration has successfully broadened its frame of interaction with Latinos and will have to continue to do so. In 2012 and beyond, the Democratic Party has to give Latinos a reason to support them, and opposing Republicans isn’t enough.