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By Javier Arreola and Alberto A. Altamirano
According to the Pew Research Center, there were 53.3 million Hispanics in the United States in 2014, comprising 17.1% of the total U.S. population. Given their numbers, Hispanics are on the rise, but it is troubling that research indicates a low level of civic engagement for Hispanics across the nation.
Hispanics are less likely to be civically involved in their community than any other minority group, although they are the biggest and fastest growing minority in the United States. However, the case of Hispanic mainstream presence in the economy certainly points toward optimism about Hispanic participation if they become more fully incorporated into the political life in the United States.
Hispanic Civic Engagement
Civic engagement can be understood as involvement in social and political activities that influence multiple levels of policy. It is the people’s connection to the life of their community and represents an active voice of participation in government while serving as an instrument of change in a democracy. Civic engagement is fundamental for public service delivery, as well as to matching tangible outcomes to the will of the people.
Civic engagement integrates multiple components of communities in order to adequately connect with decision makers. Some of these components might be community groups, schools, trade and labor unions, sports teams, civic groups, government agencies, businesses and a wide array of organizations, namely religious, workplace, philanthropic, recreational and social service. The outcome of greater participation is increased connection to public officials, and thus more representative public policy and public goods. However, when particular communities are excluded from the policy-making process and have limited political representation, decisions may be biased toward the majority and lead to unjust policy for the unrepresented minority.
In the case of the Hispanic community, exclusion from the decision-making process is linked to issues of acculturation, discrimination, anti-immigrant sentiment, collectivism, and corruption in their home countries. However, Hispanics would be more interested if the debate revolves around issues what they care about: education reform, affordable health care, housing, personal development and polices that gives them economic mobility.
There is a held misconception about the “Hispanic Threat”, which characterizes Hispanic immigrants as being too tied up to their countries, being too festive and failing to integrate into the U.S. society. The collectivist values or group orientation permeates Hispanic life. But Hispanic values go well beyond traditional conceptions. The practices and values that they bring conjointly include:
- Idealization of the family as the nuclear structure that needs unfailing attention and support.
- Interest on transcending in the American life.
- A desire to mitigate sentiments of failure to meet the American culture, especially its consumerism.
- Interest in setting up job and protection networks.
- Acknowledgement and pride of their cultural heritage.
- They have strong religious beliefs and family values.
All these beliefs are reflected in their self-expression and civic involvement. Hispanics have become more engaged in the civic life as they move along to the path of citizenship. The years of schooling and language acculturation are significant predictions for civic engagement among first and second generations.
Several factors undermine Hispanics’ willingness and participation on civic issues:
- Language: The technical language required to practice law and politics in the United States keeps Hispanic citizens from realizing full and equal participation in the political process. (According to Gallup, only 1 of 4 Americans can hold a conversation in a 2nd language).
- Legal Status: The lack of legal status influences the low participation rates among Hispanics. Even when Hispanics have obtained legal status, the fear of being culturally intrusive in the process, detains participation in the electoral process.
- Financial Status: Many Hispanics don’t have the time to vote or participate in the political process due to demanding job schedules and lack of financial stability. It is well-documented that low income and minority groups have pressures of working to help their families with additional income.
- Transportation: Hispanics who work in the farming industry live in rural communities and lack efficient public transportation to town halls, election polls or political rallies.
- Unfamiliarity: Hispanics who have just obtained legal status are not familiar with the American political process. Moreover, second- and third- generation Hispanics who grew up in households where voting or the civic life was not encouraged tend to ignore the political process due to the unfamiliarity with the American political process.
- Fear of the System: A representative number of Hispanics may have a family relative or someone they know who has been deported or imprisoned for a minor offense. Instead of taking initiative against the political corruption, and voting or rallying in favor of an issue affecting their communities, Hispanics do not engage in order to be less exposed, which they think would protect their family and legal status.
- Little Influence on Media and the Public Agenda: Despite the increased number of people fluent in Spanish, available media and information on civic engagement is controlled by few stakeholders. Moreover, the big media conglomerates and don’t have the ability to allocate an issue in the center of the national conversation.
- Voter ID Laws: These laws affect the voting turnout of minorities, and particularly that of Hispanics. A Government Accountability Office report found that it costs between $5 and $58.50 to get an ID in states that require it.
There are some enablers of Hispanic civic engagement, which shall be enhanced so that the Hispanic community is closer to its full civic potential:
- Bring Politics to Hispanic Communities: Political parties need to do a better job at engaging Hispanic communities. They need to recruit talented Hispanic organizers to energize the Hispanic vote. This organization should appeal to their values, needs, and potential contributions.
- Recruit and Nominate Hispanic Candidates: Political parties and strategists need to recruit competitive Hispanic candidates that could mobilize communities and create a sense of urgency around issues affecting the Hispanic population.
- LEP Outreach (Limited English Proficiency outreach): Nonprofit organizations, political parties, and government organizations need to facilitate the process and make sure all staff are well-trained, Spanish -speaking and culturally competent.
- Consistency: Organizations need to follow-up and be consistent with the messaging that will mobilize Hispanics during elections and after elections. Only through strategic messaging and genuine care, Hispanics will respond by registering, voting, and participating in the civic life.
- Better Infrastructure and Transportation: Local governments should take initiative in reaching out to communities that are disenfranchised from the political process. By studying electoral data, cities could potentially build better transportation and infrastructure platforms to reach those communities that don’t vote.
As stated above, there is a wide gap between the Hispanic population’s current weight on the civic system and its full potential. However, the U.S. is also benefitting from Hispanic values and collective activities. Nobody believes the path will be an easy one, but we can be sure that the way that leads to the highest potential is to recruit a new generation of civic leaders of diverse backgrounds, who work on what binds us together rather than what drives us apart.
Published on May 23th, 2016 on National Public Radio Latino USA.
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