In the 2012 presidential election, Latinos played a crucial role in granting President Barack Obama a second term, and in doing so they were emboldened as a political force.
This newly gained power doesn’t come a moment too soon. For decades it was said the nation would need to come to terms with this sizable portion of the population, and now they are the largest minority group in the United States and the fastest growing. The Census Bureau recently predicted that by the year 2060, one in three people in the U.S. will be Hispanic. It also said that by then they will nearly double their share of the population today.
As a candidate and in his first term, Latinos viewed Obama not as black, but as nonwhite. For them, he represented an alternative to the white-dominated political elite. He is, as they are, a different color. But Obama didn’t do much for Hispanics early on, which explains why they were lukewarm toward him. That trepidation is no more: Obama has made some bold moves that have satisfied this minority, especially opening a path for legal status for the children of undocumented citizens, who were born here or came to this country early on. They are called Dreamers.
What the election has granted the Dreamers is a face. And with a face comes a voice. It has been astonishing to see the number of people under the age of 30 — the limit set by the Dream Act — who are coming “out of the closet” on campuses and in marches. They are loudly and forcefully encouraging others like them to speak out, to become engaged and to spread the word. This is an opportunity to transform the country: to make it less xenophobic, less presumptuous.
Hispanics in the U.S. are by definition a fragmented bunch. The minority is made of different economic classes, different national backgrounds, different religious persuasions and different linguistic capabilities.
A major challenge in U.S. Latino history has been its leadership. At no time has the community had a clear-eyed, charismatic trailblazer capable of reaching everyone. Figures like Cesar Chavez served a purpose. But their shortcomings have been greater than their strengths. History remembers them fairly for having opened crucial doors. But corruption, nepotism and other misfortunes have left them without an obvious descendant on the national stage. Though there are some rising stars (Julian Castro, Marco Rubio and Antonio Villaraigosa, to name a few), there is no proof they will create a political umbrella that covers the various parts of the whole.
But to me this is precisely what marks a great opportunity. Rather than a single individual being in the driver’s seat, the wealth of talent and power is spread among hundreds, perhaps thousands. Judging by the response that I hear in classes, restaurants, churches and community centers, Hispanics are in awe of the determination and passion Dreamers have demonstrated in recent months. In other words, the young are leading the pack.
The formative experience Dreamers have had — living in constant fear of being deported yet loving this country above all — is forever imprinted in their memories. In the coming decades, they will assume powerful roles. They will become household names, the trailblazers of tomorrow. My hope is that they will change the perception of Latinos leaders as perennially ineffective. The Dreamers already have the Hispanic minority behind them.
Never in history have Latinos felt as secure in the U.S. as they do today. The buzz in Spanish-language television and radio, and in newspaper op-eds is all about a fresh sense of empowerment and opportunity.
But the biggest test is yet to come. Once the so-called “fiscal cliff” becomes a plateau, President Obama will tackle immigration reform. He has expressed his gratitude to Hispanics for helping get him reelected. But they are watching closely to see if he will deliver the goods. Will the president present a plan as sweeping, as epoch-making, as the one he gave us on health care? There is no doubt about one thing: As immigration reform is discussed and debated, Dreamers should be consulted frequently.
With all the new found power the Hispanic community has, the objective is to create an immigration program that is sensitive to its needs. This program must include four main components: giving a path to citizenship to those with a proven record of civil responsibility; creating a guest-working policy that responds to the economic needs of the nation; patrolling the border — in humane, responsible ways — to stop the flow of undocumented workers; and fostering diplomatic relations with Mexico and Latin America in which foreign investment and political stability expand labor opportunities, thus reducing the need to embark on a northward journey to seek a better life.
The Dreamers know about all of this better than anyone else.