Civil Liberties

As Long as 'Latino' Is Synonymous With 'Immigrant,' We Will Remain a Class Apart

As the battle continues over who deserves citizenship and at what cost, we question whether Latinos can win true citizenship.
Here we go, once more, into the political battlefield that is "immigration reform."

As the respective armies assemble to hash out who deserves citizenship and at what cost, we question whether true citizenship can be won by Latinos, whether the citizenship of Latinos will transcend immigration status and reach the very heart of what it means to be an American.

In a recent installment of its "Remade in America" series on immigration, the New York Times sets its sights on Irving, Texas, a Dallas suburb, and its Mayor Herbert Gears, whose political survival has depended on the support of Latino voters and his yielding to the prevailing political winds regarding immigration by agreeing to run immigration-status checks on criminal suspects. To illustrate just how emotionally charged the immigration issue is in Irving, readers get this glimpse of recent events at a City Council meeting.

Gears asked a woman testifying about the public harm wrought by immigrants, crime, overcrowding, even disease: "Were you at a meeting, a club meeting, where applause was given to the comment that 'anyone who comes over the border should be shot?' "

"I don't remember if there was applause or not," she said, taken aback.

As a nation we have arrived at a time when to admit in public, before friends and neighbors, support for the use of lethal force on suspected border crossers raises nary an eyebrow.

This is all perfectly reasonable, goes the argument, because presumably we are speaking about illegal border crossers, folks who break the law.

But the article, reflecting current political discourse, lumps together immigrant and "Hispanic;" citizenship status, therefore, is rendered irrelevant.

But distinctions must be made. The focus on immigration obfuscates the very real way Latinos, U.S. citizens, are upsetting some folks by challenging the status quo.

Irving happens to be the site of a lawsuit filed in federal court, Benavidez v. Irving, challenging the at-large voting system that opponents say deprives Latinos of electoral representation, and has resulted in an all-white City Council and mayor governing Irving.

At-large systems allow voters to elect citywide representatives rather than pols representing a district. A similar voting model in Dallas was defeated in Dallas in courts.

The Irving situation illustrates a significant and enduring struggle for Latinos -- that of being a "class apart." Such was the argument by three Latino attorneys when they won a pivotal civil rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was 1954, and the case, Hernandez v. Texas, was brought before the high court to challenge the all-white juries that were pervasive in Texas and was rooted in the argument that although Latinos were "white," they were "a class apart." This civil rights milestone was recently examined in the PBS documentary, A Class Apart.

But now, some 50 years later, the argument that Latinos are a class apart still holds true, but not in the way the Texas attorneys intended.

Race alone is not the issue, but citizenship itself. Indeed, rigid racial binaries in this country obfuscate a glaring reality that endures for Latinos today that goes beyond race. In the eyes of the nation, in national discourse, Latinos of all races and backgrounds lack a true claim to national citizenship.

One only needs to read the news from New Jersey where immigration agents stormed the home of Dominicans to nab undocumented immigrants.

The "Dominicans" were actually U.S. citizens. One only needs to follow the string of anti-Latino attacks -- over 800 in one year -- to see that Latinos exist beyond the racial construct of this nation; and on that frontier our citizenship evaporates.

One only needs to follow the incidents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, most of whom are of Central American and Mexican descent, swept up in immigration raids from Long Island, N.Y., to Arizona.

And most glaringly, this condition of being a class apart operates at the highest levels of government.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is the daughter of Nicaraguan and Mexican immigrants. This fact was repeated in her biographical sketch: She is a new American; she is an immigrant's daughter. But the Obama cabinet consists of several children of immigrants or migrants to this country, who speak at length themselves about scars and challenges of this nation, of this nation's soul.

For example, Eric Holder is known as the first African American Attorney General in the country's history. Holder's parents have roots in Barbados. Patrick Gaspar, White House political director (Karl Rove's former post), is a Haitian American. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is the son of an Israeli father and was a civilian volunteer assisting the Israel Defense Forces during the 1991 Gulf War. The press or the public has not made much of these other first-generation Americans.

But "Latino," the word itself has become synonymous with "immigrant", and those it describes are perpetually seen as immigrants, no matter when their parents arrived on U.S. soil.

And, for that matter, in the case of Puerto Ricans, who are automatically U.S. citizens, and many Mexican Americans from the South and Southwest (who never migrated because their lands were once Mexican territories that were ceded to the U.S. as a result of the Mexican-American War), the situation is even more extraordinary.

The authors of this piece are a Dominican immigrant who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and a native Texan who never immigrated (nor did her parents). Both are Latinas, but worlds apart in the way their U.S. citizenship materialized.

But in the current paradigm of who can claim citizenship, we are both intrinsically linked to the world of immigration and foreignness.

And to many Americans, Latinos' roots are in Latin America and Mexico, as though having some connection with Latin America trumps any possibility of becoming a "true" U.S. citizen.

This is not the case for any other group with ties with the rest of the world (i.e. most of the United States). This is the U.S.'s historic denial of its Latin American-ness and its failure to recognize that there is no inconsistency with being a Latin American (or Latino) and a U.S. citizen.

To many Americans, including the authors of this article, Latin America is an integral part of U.S. citizenship and history, just as Jewish and Irish and West Indian ancestry are claimed by many a public official.

And like them, we make claim to our citizenship. It is what girds us before the storm of the immigration debate.