Cepeda column: Trump era takes a toll on Hispanics’ faith in America
CHICAGO — Despite the myth of the monolithic Hispanic voting bloc whose sole concern is immigration, more than a decade of data has shown that education, health care, jobs and the economy have been the most pressing issues on Latinos’ minds.
But this past year, after countless hate crimes against brown and bilingual people and a summer of children in cages at the border, it finally happened: Immigration shot to the top of the list of Hispanics’ concerns.
Twenty percent of Hispanics said immigration (tied with the economy and inequality) is the most important problem facing the nation, with family separation and deportation among the other issues cited, according to an October Pew Research Center report.
Worse, Latinos’ historically consistent optimism has finally faltered as well. Pew reports that 62 percent of Hispanics now say they’re dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared with 50 percent in 2017. Hispanic dissatisfaction hasn’t been this high since the Great Recession in 2008, when 70 percent were pessimistic about the direction of the country.
In contrast, non-Hispanics are feeling better about the U.S. because of their perception that national economic conditions are “excellent” or “good.”
In fact, there’s really no decoupling of the effects of Latinos’ negative feelings about life in the U.S. from the past three years of Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency. During this time, anyone with ties to Latin America has been made to feel like a criminal, an interloper and a threat to America — regardless of whether their families have lived on U.S. soil for generations or arrived at the border seeking asylum.
Is it really a coincidence that the year of feeling bleak about our future in this country was topped off with a holiday season that was particularly difficult for Latinos, who are collectively mourning the recent deaths of two children, ages 7 and 8, while in custody of U.S. border patrol? Such deaths hadn’t happened in over a decade.
These tragedies are but another layer in a pile of woes: Trump started 2018 by saying that Haiti, El Salvador, and certain nations in Africa were “shithole countries.” In addition to the human-rights violations at the U.S.-Mexico border, deportations in the interior of the country have stepped-up, as have the constant assaults on protections for young, undocumented “Dreamers.” And there continue to be worries about the economic and emotional pain Puerto Rico is experiencing more than a year after being nearly destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
Limits were imposed on temporary protected status for refugees from Latin America and, of course, there were threats to forestall, and in some cases revoke, U.S. citizenship for current green-card holders. These are but a few notable issues from 2018, and I could go on listing the indignities, challenges and low points.
But I won’t because, despite the bad news, there is always still hope for people who can trace their family trees to somewhere else.
Pew also reports, “When asked to assess how the U.S. compares with their country of origin, 85 percent of Hispanics say the opportunity to get ahead is better in the U.S., with similar shares among those who immigrated to the U.S. and those who were born here. Similarly, about three in four (74 percent) Hispanics say the conditions for raising children are better in the U.S. than they are in their country of origin. In both instances, opinions are unchanged since 2011 when the question was last asked.”
As a country, we are young — a scant 242 years old — and our history of accepting new people to the point that they become one of “us” is short. Put into perspective, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ending segregation and employment discrimination is only 55 years old.
We’ve got a long way to go, but we will get there, eventually.
I recently met up with a friend, a Polish immigrant, to talk about projects for the new year. He was sunny, telling me, “Esther, in this country everything is possible.”
That’s certainly the stance of the parents of the students I work with daily.
Families from Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and so many other places are all here despite the pressures, the impediments and the bare-faced bigotry they’re sometimes confronted with — sure to the marrow of their bones that this country is the best place for their children and grandchildren.
We’ll find a way to rise to meet our challenges in 2019. We can’t let our newest neighbors — or ourselves — down.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.