Muñoz stresses respect for Latinos

by Charles Gardner | 11/2/00 6:00am

Cecilia Muoz, vice president of the Research and Advocacy Office of the National Council of La Raza, spoke about the problems facing Latino immigrants in the 21st century in the Rockefeller Center yesterday.

Muoz, a prominent national advocate for Latino civil rights, voiced her concern over the condition and treatment of Latinos as a whole, whether native-born or immigrant.

"If we are not prepared to recognize the contributions of immigrants in our national community, then we fail to recognize the contributions of everyone else, as well," she said.

During the lecture, Muoz stressed the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy, both in terms of present and future prosperity.

"Immigrants are critical to economic growth," Muoz said. "Over 50 percent of the new jobs created in this country are filled by Latinos alone."

Muoz also said that many of these same immigrants are becoming increasingly visible and active in government, especially at the local level.

"We have increasing electoral clout," said Muoz, noting that Latinos are on the verge of becoming the nation's largest minority.

Census figures indicate that as of 1998, Latinos constituted 11.2 percent of the national population, just behind 12.7 percent for African-Americans.

By 2050, however, barring any changes in current immigration policy, Latinos will account for nearly 25 percent of a projected 394 million Americans and could be a majority in states such as California and Texas.

"We're seeing different responses to this growth," Muoz said, remarking that too often Latino workers, particularly those in the lowest income jobs, are left without basic services.

"We want only what everyone else wants: access to decent education, health coverage, an opportunity to save money, safe neighborhoods, and, no less importantly, respect."

Of all these issues, Muoz said education should be the single most important question.

She noted that Latino students have very high dropout rates nationally and often have difficulty passing standardized tests designed for those fluent in English.

"We need to strengthen education to provide increased access to higher-paying jobs," she said.

Although Muoz considered education the question deserving the greatest attention, she recognized that several other problems stood in the way of Latinos' economic advancement.

"We need to closely examine the sector of the economy that provides low-paying jobs," she said, stating that such businesses might in the future be encouraged to provide basic benefits to their workers.

Muoz also underscored the importance of respect towards growing Latino communities in fostering such economic progress.

She offered the example of a predominantly Mexican community in Arkansas, where police -- in an act of racial profiling -- patrolled the town over a three-day period, asking all those who looked Latino to produce proof of their legal residency.

Although such profiling has come under criticism in other areas of the country, where police have been accused of pulling over and questioning drivers on the basis of race, Muoz said that such tactics remain legal when used in the search for undocumented Latinos.

"We don't have policies on the table to end racial profiling," she said, adding that profiling as well as other racially-based police tactics have caused many Latinos to feel insecure in their own neighborhoods.

Muoz called for additional legislation benefiting Latino immigrants and in particular urged the passage of the recently introduced "Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act."

The bill's primary function would be to allow Haitians and certain Central Americans a chance to change their status to that of permanent legal citizens.

"We must make sure Latinos are fully included in any future reforms," said Muoz, adding that many Americans still deny Latinos the respect and attention they deserve.

Despite the social and economic problems that Latino immigrants encounter, most are proud to be part of the United States' long-standing immigrant tradition, Muoz said.

"For every immigrant group that came to America, America transformed them and they transformed America," she said.

After the lecture, Muoz fielded questions from the capacity crowd in Rocky 2 on bilingual education, school vouchers and the political involvement of Latinos.