Latinos in the United States are now the nation's largest ethnic majority. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 50.5 million Latinos living in the U.S., which does not include for the 3.7 million Puerto Ricans who are citizens. As the presidential election approaches, it is crucial for Latinos here to send a clear, united message to President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney about the importance of getting the immigration issue right.
My mother is a Chilean born immigrant who came to the U.S. after years in exile abroad due to a U.S.-backed dictatorship in Chile, which left her without a country to call home. This is not a unique experience for Latinos; there have been many well-documented U.S.-supported military coups in the Americas.
I am originally from Caracas, Venezuela. My mother and I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 5 years old. Arriving at my uncle's home and spending time with my North American-born cousins was exciting and distressing. I quickly learned the language and made friends at school. My mother, who was in her 30s and already college-educated, was forced to work low-wage jobs, cleaning houses and apartment buildings and even working in a fruit factory.
Despite often working two jobs to support us, she completed her associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees, all within 10 years. She accomplished this to put me through school and simultaneously teach me the value and importance of education. I have carried this lesson with me my whole life. I work in human services, alongside her, here in Hartford directly with the Latino community.
Our path to legality was not easy; obtaining our permanent residency was very costly, and despite having family and community support, the stress that we experienced as "illegals" was at times, devastating. Now as a "legal" immigrant, I share a privilege with others who have similar stories, to advocate for undocumented Latinos who live with the daily fear of speaking out about their experiences.
The national dialogue around Latino immigration, legal and illegal, has a tone of animosity, confusion and general xenophobia. Although President Obama ordered a halt to the deportation of many eligible young Latinos, he failed to effectively institute more accessible and legitimate avenues for the undocumented community to "legalize" themselves.
The ultimate goal must be to ensure a better quality of life for those in the undocumented community who work, almost always, in low-wage, unsafe and unsupported environments. Putting aside President Obama's immigration failings, the possibility of Mitt Romney becoming president should only serve to terrify the Latino community. Former White House adviser Van Jones recently told CNN, "He cannot hug and kiss the tea party and then try to hug and kiss the Latino community."
Romney's stance on immigration is duplicitous and politically self-serving. He has yet to make any true commitment to a plan that could improve the immigration issue. More alarmingly, he works in conjunction with the tea party, whose stance on the immigrant community is nothing short of pure discrimination.
There is a tremendous opportunity for the next president to end the isolation and fear within the undocumented Latino community. Undocumented and legal Latino immigrants must be included in the national dialogue about their rights. The presidential candidates should start by changing the hostile language that exists in the debate: "illegal aliens" may not be the best term to discuss people who are still members of our species, despite their legal status.
Latinos enhance our economy and in the same stroke are devalued for it. Very few Americans live their daily lives without eating, walking on, buying, selling or wearing something forged by the work of the Latino immigrants living among them. Lastly, people should not disregard the heartache and hard work that the undocumented Latino faces every day. Through much hardship, past immigrants shaped this country; let us make the path for the new generation of immigrants less difficult then it was for their predecessors.
Morella Mora Leal is project coordinator at The Center for Social Research at the University of Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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