US' Oldest Hispanic Rights Group Focuses On Immigration

As the 2010 Census says Ohio's Latino population has grown 63.4 percent in the last decade, the League of United Latin American Citizens is having its convention in Cincinnati this week. To learn about Latinos in the Midwest and the pressing issues addressed at the convention, guest host Tony Cox speaks with LULAC national executive director Brent Wilkes.

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TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm sitting in for Michel Martin, who is away.

New studies show that black and Latino youth have found their own way to the Internet through their cell phones. But is that enough to close the racial digital divide? That's coming up in a bit.

But first, when you think of a growing Latino population, you probably don't think of the Midwest or Ohio. But in the last 10 years, the Latino population in Ohio has grown by 63.4 percent, according to the 2010 census. It's one of the reasons why LULAC, the League of United Latin-American Citizens, decided to host their annual convention in Cincinnati this week.

LULAC is the oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country. And to find out where the group stands on some of today's important issues facing Latinos, we invited Brent Wilkes, national executive director of LULAC. He joins us now from Cincinnati. Brent, nice to have you.

BRENT WILKES: It's great to be on the show, Tony.

COX: We think of Cincinnati - let's begin with this - as home of the oldest team in professional baseball, the Cincinnati Reds, of course, and its festive river boats, not necessarily a growing Latino population. What drew LULAC to have its convention there, considering other cities with Latinos in much larger numbers?

WILKES: Well, what really drew us was the phenomenal growth of the Latino population not only in Ohio, but in Kentucky, just south of the river here, an explosive growth. And by coming to Cincinnati really early on in the process -and we're hoping to have an impact and get folks off to the right start, so that the future of the state - we've seen figures that show that the 75 percent of the growth in Ohio is due to the Latino population in the last 10 years. And that's going to continue. So we're trying to pave the way for the future and help the state prepare for its growing Hispanic population.

COX: What are the key issues to be addressed at the convention? I know that you have Secretary Solis and Secretary Sebelius, who were participating this week. Is immigration reform at the top of the list?

WILKES: Well, it is and it isn't. It is in the sense that immigration reform is extremely important to our community. It's something that we've been working very hard to try to pass, especially things like the Dream Act. But we also recognize that it's a difficult political climate.

So, really, the focus of this convention is to prepare for the 2012 elections and to be a force to be reckoned with in those elections, because we really believe that in order to move this issue forward, we're going to have to show up at the ballot box and make our opinions heard. And so that's really a big push at this convention. We're registering thousands of voters across the country. We hope to make sure that the Hispanic population is not only growing, but voting, as well, and we think that that'll help position ourselves in the coming years for a chance at getting comprehensive immigration reform passed.

COX: If you're joining us, I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

And we are here with Brent Wilkes, national executive director of LULAC, talking about their convention currently taking place in Cincinnati, Ohio. I want to follow up on a point about the election next year. President Obama, Brent, has come under criticism for his - what some would call a not-so-aggressive stance in support of immigration reform. It's also suggested that his position could cost him Latino votes in 2012.

What is LULAC's position with regard to supporting the president, given his record on immigration reform?

WILKES: You know, there is a sense of disappointment. Certainly, you can understand that. There was a lot of hope when the president came in promising change. We thought that we had the position in Congress to be able to get this done this session. But what ended up happening, I think, is that the president did focus on other issues at the beginning of his term first, hoping to get to immigration reform a little bit later.

But by the time he got there, his honeymoon had subsided and his political capital was not strong enough to, you know, allow him to get immigration reform through Congress this past year.

COX: Does that mean, then, that LULAC is going to move from the Democratic column to the Republican column? And I ask that because, just this week, as you are aware, Michele Bachmann announced her candidacy, joining a number of others in the GOP fold who say that it's time - I'm not saying that she's saying this, but other candidates are saying it's time for the Republican Party to more aggressively court Latinos. So are you up for grabs in 2012 - the Latinos in your organization?

WILKES: You know, we're non-partisan at LULAC, first of all. So we're not really picking sides in the campaign. But I do have to say that we do want to educate our community about who's supported our issues and who hasn't.

Now, is it good to have Republicans courting the Latino vote? Absolutely. Especially considering the alternative, which is using the Latino vote as a wedge issue and trying to, you know, pick up white votes based on picking on the Latino community. And we've seen that happen, too, especially from some of the more conservative elements.

So they got their work cut out for them, because their positions had been pretty tough on immigration reform. I think they've been the ones really stirring up the resentment in the country. And that's unfortunate, because when you pit people against each other for, you know, electoral gain, you might gain politically personally, but you really harm the country.

COX: One of the issues that we don't normally hear much about from the Latino community, at least not publicly, has to do with gay marriage and gay rights. Now, given last week's landmark vote in New York legalizing gay marriage, how does your organization view these changes? Are you in support of gay marriage?

WILKES: We absolutely are in support of gay marriage. We understand that this is a civil rights issue, just like all the other civil rights issues that we've dealt with. And there's so many people within our community that are affected by this issue, we want to make sure that they have all the rights and privileges of every other American.

COX: One of the other issues that I'd like to bring up with you in the time that we have left has to do with the border and the violence that has taken place between Mexico and the United States along the border involving the drug cartels. What position has your organization taken with regard to how the United States should handle its policy toward fighting drug cartels in Mexico?

WILKES: Well, we really are concerned. I mean, I think that our focus has been on the Middle East, unfortunately, in the last decade, and we're not really looking at a very troubling situation in Mexico. We don't want to have an Afghanistan next door. And we've got to step in and we've got to support the government there to combat a very virulent threat. But we can't do it just by enforcement alone.

We could help, for example, by honoring Mexico's request and trying to cut down on the flow of guns south of the border from the United States. We can also work on development. We've never provided the type of aid to help develop the economy of Mexico. And what ends up happening when you have a bad economy is not only are you having lots of immigrants, of course, wanting to come here, but you also have the seeds for the cartels to operate in.

And I think we've got to be a stronger partner with Mexico. Our history and our future is linked to them much more than many Americans realize.

COX: Last thing: We began the conversation talking about immigration reform and noting the fact, correctly, that your organization is meeting in Cincinnati as part of the sign that Latinos in America are moving around, and sometimes they're moving to the Midwest. And we also have had stories about Latinos moving into the South. And you know about the states, Alabama, certainly Arizona and others who have come up with what some consider draconian anti-immigration reform measures.

How concerned are you about that trend in America? And to what extent is that having an impact on where Latinos decide to live?

WILKES: Well, we're very concerned. These laws are extremely troubling, especially considering the fact that the people promulgating them are the same ones that are blocking us from getting immigration reform passed at the federal level, where the responsibility for immigration really lies. And so these laws are not really designed to target immigrants or undocumented immigrants, they're actually designed to harass Latinos within their state, because they say things, like, anybody that looks like they might be an immigrant, you can stop them and ask for their papers or you can discriminate against them safely because, you know, they might be an immigrant.

Well, who are they talking about when they say they might look like an immigrant? They're not talking about non-Latino whites. They're talking about primarily the Latino community and other communities.

So what's happening is they are driving their Latino populations to other states. Nobody seems to notice that, you know, Georgia had 40 percent of their crops not picked. And those things hurt their economy. And it's as if they're cutting their nose off to spite their face, and they don't seem to realize it.

COX: Brent Wilkes is the national executive director of LULAC, the League of United Latin-American Citizens, the oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country. He joined us from member station WGUC in Cincinnati, where the group is having its annual convention. Brent, thank you very much for joining us.

WILKES: It's great to be on. Thank you.

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