High Stakes For Latinos In Debt Talks

President Barack Obama waves as he prepares to walks off stage after delivering remarks at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference luncheon in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011. i i

President Barack Obama waves as he prepares to walks off stage after delivering remarks at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference luncheon in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama waves as he prepares to walks off stage after delivering remarks at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference luncheon in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011.

President Barack Obama waves as he prepares to walks off stage after delivering remarks at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference luncheon in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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President Obama's approval rating among Latinos has plunged since his inauguration, says a recent Gallup poll. Yesterday, Obama spoke to the U.S.' largest Latino civil rights group. To learn about Latinos' priorities and political strategies of getting them addressed, host Michel Martin speaks with the National Council of La Raza's Janet Murguia.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, when we learned of the gunman who killed dozens of people in Norway last week saying he was waging a war against Islam, most people probably thought one of two things: the work of a terrorist or the work of a madman. But what is the line between the two? Is extreme bigotry itself a mental illness? We'll explore that question in just a few minutes.

But, first, we just spoke with two of the nation's leading civil rights leaders. Now we have a third: the leader of a group that President Obama chose to address even in the middle of his work on the debt issue. The group is the National Council of La Raza. It's holding its annual conference here in Washington, D.C. The group is the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country. And the president talked about his efforts to reach out to the community, including a recent meeting of Latino leaders at the White House.

President BARACK OBAMA: We weren't just paying lip service to the community. Our work together, not just that day, but every day, has been more than just talk.

MARTIN: Some Latinos, though, are beginning to question whether that is, in fact, true. We wanted to talk more about that, so we've called upon Janet Murguia. She is the president of the National Council of La Raza. And she was kind enough to take a break from the conference to speak with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

JANET MURGUIA: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, though, about the big meta issue in Washington right now, which is these ongoing negotiations over the debt and the deficit. Do you feel that this issue is crowding out other issues that are also of concern to you? Are you concerned? Do you think there will be a deal?

MURGUIA: Well, I guess we don't know for sure. But I do know that this is an issue that affects all of us, including the Latino community. In fact, the stakes are quite high for the Latino community because of our demographics. The large level of growth that we've seen since the last census demonstrates a couple of key things. Latino children are going to be the cohort of individuals on which Social Security will rely on in the next 10 to 20 years.

And at the back end it is Latino seniors who rely disproportionately on those Social Security checks as their single source of income. So we've got a lot at stake in these discussions and they do appear to be very much in flux.

MARTIN: What are the priorities of the people at the conference meeting here? Many people associate your group with fighting for immigrants rights or around the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. And I wonder if that's still at the top of the agenda, given all the other things going on, including, you know, the ongoing economic troubles, which are, as the president and as you just said, affecting Latinos disproportionately hard.

MURGUIA: What we have found is that typically the economy and jobs, education have been at the very top of the list when it comes to issues of concern to the Hispanic community. But interestingly enough, we have done a straw poll at our conference and we've seen that polls done with the Latino community since the Arizona law that was passed, SB1070, since that time, Latinos have ranked immigration as one of the top issues. And so there is a shift in the Latino community. Immigration has risen to the top of the list of priorities for the Latino community.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, during his campaign - his campaign for the presidency, then Senator Obama told your group that he was not going to be just another guy who talks the talk, but who's going to be somebody who walks the walk and actually does something about immigration reform. How do your members evaluate his promise along those lines?

MURGUIA: I think the Latino community and in particular Latino voters are pretty thoughtful about this. And I think they understand that when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, the president does, as he stated at our conference, need a dance partner. And that the Republicans really have to step up in a way where he can engage and it can be a bipartisan solution. We understand that.

But there is the issue around the level of deportations that are occurring today during the Obama administration that are at the highest levels that we've seen in the country's history - even higher than when President Bush was in office. And that is very, very alarming to the Latino community only because we do not disagree that violent criminals and gang members should be deported.

But what's happening right now is that the priorities of how people are being deported, we're seeing, unfortunately, regrettably, many students who would qualify for the Dream Act. Students who have been here for their whole lives, but were brought to this country by their parents when they were very, very young and who are now in situations where they are facing deportations.

We're seeing a lot of families being separated because, in fact, some of the folks that are being targeted are farm workers or dishwashers or maids. And we think that there ought to be a prioritization that occurs with enforcement so that we're targeting those who are higher risk felons or higher risk criminals.

MARTIN: Well, what does the administration say when you make this case to them? I mean, what do you make of the administration's response?

MURGUIA: Well, I believe that there's an honest disagreement, but, you know, from the perspective of our community, we've been looking at the data to date. And it does reflect that there have been families that are separated and those who have been in the least risk in terms of the nature of infractions who have been - still being deported.

And so, you know, again, we have no issue with violent criminals and gang members who we all agree should be removed. But we are talking about the millions of farm workers, hotel maids, cooks and landscapers who work hard every day to provide for their families. And I do believe that there is a disagreement between many of the folks who we know have reviewed the president's level of authority in this area and what the Department of Homeland Security, I believe, is advising the president.

But we believe that he has some authority to provide relief in this area to the separation that's occurring among these families. And we believe he ought to use it.

MARTIN: And we've talked about the president, what about the Republican presidential candidates of which there are a number of declared candidates at this point. Are any of them addressing the conference as well?

MURGUIA: Well, that's been something that's been very disappointing for us because, in fact, we invited at least five of the candidates running for president in the Republican Party, and were turned down and that's disappointing because clearly they have chosen other priorities, you know, with just 16 months before the election. I think it's fair to remind them that key analysts in their own party has said that no Republican can win the presidency without at least 40 percent of the Latino vote.

And, frankly, when you look right now at what the leading individuals in the Republican Party are doing, it is alarming to the Hispanic community right now. At the federal level we've seen many in the Republican senators and House members who have been at the lead of blocking comprehensive immigration reform. And at the state level, it's been worse. It has been Republicans who have been leading the effort to pass legislation that attacks immigrants and Latinos.

So, the Republicans do not seem to be positioning themselves to be even in the conversation. And I do give a lot of credit to President Obama for at least being in the conversation. Look, our organization, the Latino community, has not agreed with him on every issue. And we are taking him to task on the level of deportations, but he came. And the same cannot be said about the Republicans and the Republican Party right now.

MARTIN: Janet Murguia is the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. It's the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country. She was nice enough to take a break from the conference that the National Council is holding in Washington, D.C. to speak to us on the line. Janet Murguia, thank you so much for joining us.

MURGUIA: Thank you.

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