By Jodie Briggs
They may not have donned sombreros or opened their remarks with "Hola amigos," but guests at the 75th annual League of United Latin American Citizens conference gave plenty of lip service to Latinos. Although LULAC leaders called for an end to "piñata politics," sponsoring organizations and politicians delivered carefully crafted remarks to woo what many political observers call the country's most important demographic.
Since the 2000 U.S. Census bestowed Hispanics with the title of largest minority, politicians and advertisers alike have sought to gain influence within the community. But political observers are quick to point out that, in the last presidential election, only 5.4 million of the 7.5 million registered Latinos voted. Voter-outreach groups like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project discount the notion that the Latino community is an indifferent group. "We are not a sleeping giant," said one official.
SVREP hopes to bring the total number of registered Latinos to 10 million with 8 million actually casting a vote. Such numbers concentrated in swing states could potentially affect the outcome. In Florida, SVREP projects that 85 percent of Latinos will vote, which would amount to 13 percent of the total vote. In New Mexico, the effect could be greater: If the projected 80 percent of registered Latinos vote, they would comprise 33 percent of the total.
Corporations, meanwhile, look beyond votes to the $600 million purchasing power of the Latino community. Sponsoring organization Wal-Mart attempted to reach out to the audience by boasting of recent trends ostensibly indicating that the big-box store is a supportive employer of Latinos. "We've made tremendous progress. Our board of directors has two African-Americans, two Women, and two Latinos," said the Wal-Mart representative. "We are the largest employer of Latinos in the country with 90,000 associates." While "associate" may conjure images of suit-clad men and women whose earnings secure them a place in the middle class, an associate at Wal-Mart is an hourly employee.
With an eye towards the fall, Bush administration representatives addressed the conference. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson touted Head Start, the early childhood development program started by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. But Bush's proposed 2005 budget would freeze enrollment in Head Start and diverts federal money to states for distribution to other programs besides Head Start.
President George W. Bush later addressed the crowd via satellite and pledged to deliver on three main issues: education, the economy, and immigration reform. Bush began with a nod to those born outside the country. "Our aspirations matter more than our origin. Immigrants make our country more, not less, American," he said.
Bush continued with his more familiar campaign stump speech about No Child Left Behind, the test-oriented education initiative. Bush claimed success for the program and boasted a 40 percent increase in Title I funding to schools with a lower-income students. Yet, his budget proposals tell a different story. According to Bush's 2005 budget, No Child Left Behind would receive $33.2 billion less than promised and $22.4 billion less for Title I purposes.
Some LULAC leaders criticized the program for its funding shortages. Speaking about the main issues facing the Latino community, one member said: "No one would think to go into Iraq without money behind troops, but that's what we're doing with education."
Beyond improving schools, Bush cited his economic achievements and pledged to continue tax cuts to small businesses. "Tax relief has helped millions of small business earners," he said.
Recent statistics, however, contradict Bush's claims. According to information from the Internal Revenue Service, less than 4 percent of small businesses earn enough money to qualify for the top tax bracket. Bush and his advocates rest their assertions on the fact that more than two-thirds of filers in the top bracket earn some income from small business. This inclusive definition of small business allows Bush to cast what most people would describe as top earners as small-business men.
Bush concluded his remarks with a call for immigration reform. "The system isn't fair and it's not right," he said. He reminded the audience of his guest-worker plan, which would grant illegal immigrant workers temporary legal status. Bush claimed his plan would "bring millions out of the shadows," but omitted the finer details that would force workers to leave after four years.
Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros questioned the practicality of the guest-worker program. "What about people who've been here for generations? Life happens and people put down roots." LULAC President Hector Flores put his criticism more bluntly. "A guest-worker program is not the answer," he said, advocating for earned legalization instead.
Senator John Kerry also spoke by satellite, marking the first time the two major presidential candidates addressed a civil rights group. Following a partial standing ovation, Kerry rebuked Bush's record on domestic initiatives. "Hispanic unemployment has soared over 30 percent with 1.4 million Hispanics out of work," Kerry said. He then pledged to build the middle class, but offered few specific proposals. Kerry also decried the current education system and promised to fund No Child Left Behind.
Like Bush, Kerry described the current immigration system as "broken." In his first 100 days, Kerry said that he would "send comprehensive immigration reform to Congress to ensure good, tax-paying, undocumented people will have an equal path to citizenship." He said that his proposal would also place a priority on reuniting families and protect working conditions. Kerry closed by reminding the audience of the work of Cesar Chavez and tested his Spanish by chanting "Si Se Puede."
Noticeably absent from Kerry's remarks was the issue of giving undocumented immigrants driver's licenses. Kerry recently announced he opposed the idea, calling it a privilege of legal residence. At least one LULAC member remembered the slight. "The fact that candidates today debate whether or not we can drive with driver's licenses is unquestionable," she said.
While both candidates made sure they addressed education and the economy, neither touched on what Latino voting groups call their third most important issue: foreign policy in Iraq. Both Bush and Kerry talked about Iraq only in terms of the number of Latinos involved. Bush made no mention of the current situation in Iraq, outside of recognizing General Ricardo Sanchez, who was in the audience. Bush reminded members that more than 100 Hispanics were killed in Iraq, but said nothing of the circumstances that brought them to war or kept their fellow soldiers there. Kerry said even less, only citing the number of legal immigrants in service.
In a panel discussion about the Hispanic agenda, one member described their commitment to policy issues. "Latinos care about what the country is doing outside the borders, not just in Latin American countries. They are looking at it as stakeholders." •
By Jodie Briggs