Stand up and be counted

Group-photo.jpgSylvia Puente, AM’90, holds a degree in public policy from the Harris School. Her training as an activist began at age 13, when she joined her mother, a former migrant worker, on Chicago picket lines to support the United Farm Workers. Puente’s 25-year career as an advocate for the local and national Latino community took a new turn in 2009, when she became the executive director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. She spoke with UChiBLOGo in mid-April about the 2010 Census, immigration reform, and other issues affecting Illinois Latinos.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhy should Latinos participate in the 2010 Census?
QandA_ADrop.jpgCounting Latinos in the census is important so we can truly reflect the diversity of the population of Illinois. Since 2000, Latinos have been responsible for 90 percent of the state’s population growth. If all the nearly two million Latinos in Illinois are counted, it will bring $30 billion to the state’s economy over the next decade. We need an accurate count so the state can capture its share of federal dollars for everything from roads and transportation to education to human services. Finally, it’s really important because we know that the count is used as a basis for Congressional redistricting.
QandA_QDrop.jpgIs undercounting expected to be a problem?
QandA_ADrop.jpgDefinitely—it hasn’t received a lot of public attention, but there have been more deportations of undocumented immigrants during Obama’s first year than there were during Bush’s last year. People have neighbors whose families have been torn apart, and this instills a sense of fear about the government. So far, the unfortunate reality is that the turnout for the census in the Latino community has been remarkably low and not what we would have hoped for, especially given all the outreach and door-knocking that many groups did to try to educate people about the census.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat other issues is the Latino Policy Forum working on?
QandA_ADrop.jpgAccess to early-childhood education is a key issue for us and critical to reducing the educational achievement gap. One in three newborns in the Chicago metropolitan area is now Latino. Statewide, one in four children under age 5 is a Latino child, but we haven’t opened up enough early-childhood facilities in Latino neighborhoods and in areas where the population has grown. Another big issue is the state’s devastating economy, which has implications for the delivery of a whole array of human services for communities. And immigration, of course, is a huge issue.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat are the chances that this Congress will approve comprehensive immigration reform?
QandA_ADrop.jpgIt’s going to be tough. It’s really going to depend on how much capital President Obama is willing to invest in it. Locally, Senator Durbin has been an ally and there’s been a renewed call for him to take leadership on the issue. There’s never been a more cohesive, organized strategy for promoting comprehensive immigration reform in this country—but whether or not it will move forward at this time, we just don’t know. If federal legislation isn’t introduced by the end of the month, immigration reform activists are prepared to have mass mobilizations go to the next level to call attention to the issue.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat specific reforms would the Latino community like to see?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe reforms being talked about are how do we regularize the status of the nearly 12 million undocumented people in the United States today? What is going to be the path to citizenship? Most of the proposed legislation is calling for fines and penalties, because people have entered the country in an unauthorized manner. We understand that, but there really has to be a way of allowing people to no longer live in the shadows.

We need to look at family reunification and how we manage future flows of immigrants. Should we create guest-worker programs, or programs that are tied to the economic needs of this country, so that people can come in and go back to their homeland? We’ve made it very difficult to regulate the flow of circular migration, so when people come to the United States they really feel like they’ve been forced to stay here.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat about securing our borders?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThat needs to happen, but it’s also important to point out that only half of unauthorized immigrants cross the border illegally. It’s a false issue to put all the attention on border control, because many people have arrived on a plane, on a visitor’s visa, and just never went back. Yes, people have come into the country in an unauthorized manner, but we need to understand that they wouldn’t have come if there wasn’t a labor market and an employer willing to pay them. We need to consider what the labor needs are in this country—and the vital role that low-wage labor has played in sustaining the quality of life that we as Americans have enjoyed.

Elizabeth Station

Puente (top, center) with Latino Policy Forum colleagues; Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood is one of the communities in which they work. All photos courtesy Latino Policy Forum.

April 26, 2010