In my early forties I discovered that under US law I was Hispanic. Even though my father was white and my mother a white immigrant from the UK I could self-identify as Hispanic on the US Census. How? Because Dad and Mom spent almost five years in Venezuela in the early 1960s working in the oil fields. Since I was born there and lived there longer than two years, US law allowed me to claim I was Hispanic.
And for over a decade I have checked that box on every form. I joined the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association and try and follow issues relevant to the community. Why? Because growing up in Dallas, vacationing throughout Latin America, working with Hispanics in the oil fields while in college, working in a Latin American law firm in graduate school, and working with Hispanic colleagues throughout my corporate career, it was a group I was proud to claim as my own. The Hispanics in my life are great friends and colleagues – culturally fascinating, hard working, family oriented, and anxious to become American.
And being Hispanic is actually an interesting way for me to have a conversation with the immigrant community. When I tell immigrants that I am originally from Venezuela it actually opens up the conversation. It is not so much this light skinned six foot four guy is one of us, as much as here is someone who I can talk to with some chance he will understand my perspective.
Because unlike the current political discourse, which claims Hispanics will all vote Democratic because of immigration reform my experience is Hispanics vary widely in political, economic, and social views. A fairly recent Pew Study on The 10 Largest Hispanic Origin Groups: Characteristics, Rankings, Top Counties backs up this experience. The Hispanic community in the United States is as rich and diverse as the United States.
Although Mexico remains the overwhelming single source of Hispanics in America, the Pew Study traces nine other countries as significant contributors: Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, Ecuador, and Peru. This is an incredibly diverse set of countries that too many Americans tend to view as a block.
Even Mexico, which accounts for 65% of US Hispanic origin is as diverse as our own country. Thinking about Hispanics from Monterey, Mexico City, Leon, Merida, and Cozumel (all cities I have visited) as the same is the equivalent of thinking about US native born from New York City, Birmingham, Minneapolis, Denver, and Los Angeles as the same. When our country is so strongly divided trying to think about Hispanics and their attitudes toward immigration reform in one way is in itself discriminatory.
I spoke with one of my friends who came into the US in the early 1980s from Nicaragua. He clearly wants the US government to treat migrants respectfully. But he also wants to send them back as quickly as possible unless they qualify for refugee status. He views holding out a false promise of citizenship or residency as cruel. The best way to prevent that outcome is to separate genuine victims of trafficking from those fleeing the endemic poverty and violence of many parts of Latin America.
One of our other friends from El Salvador wants to take in all the children. As a mother she sees in the kids in the detention center, her children. But she also returned to El Salvador this weekend for a vacation. Although El Salvador is riven with poverty, not all of it is overrun with gangs and human traffickers.
Hispanics are neither a group to take for granted nor one to pander to for political purposes.
What we need to do on the border in South Texas is treat every migrant as an individual. Get them a good immigration lawyer, a very quick hearing and ruling, then process them into the US or send them back. That will require not just appropriations, but changes to existing law. It will require compromise.
Ultimately, dignity is the only thing I have learned unites Hispanics. Treat me with dignity. Treat me as an individual, not a voting bloc.