Former Housing Secretary Aids Latino Assimilation

Former housing secretary Henry Cisneros says churches, unions and other institutions once helped immigrants assimilate into American society. The diminished reach of those groups, he says, has hampered Latino integration. He's launched the organization Bridges and Pathways to help fill the gap.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros says any number of social organizations used to help Latino immigrants integrate into American society: churches, political organizations, unions among those. But these days, he said, that happens less frequently, which leaves Latinos more isolated. To that end, Cisneros has partnered with Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg to form Bridges and Pathways, a group that looks for new ways to help Latinos embrace their new country more fully.

If you're an immigrant to this country, call and tell us your story. What organizations helped you make your way in America? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Henry Cisneros joins us now from the studios of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

HENRY CISNEROS: Neal, thank you. Thank you for your good work, and entertaining as well as informative programs.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that. Why now? Why Bridges and Pathways now?

CISNEROS: Well, Bridges and Pathways is a vehicle that we created to sort of stimulate conversation and find a common ground between the Jewish experience in the United States, which includes immigration. The Jewish community is one of the stronger advocates and protectors, defenders of immigration over the years. In fact, you think of the East side of New York and the settlement houses that welcomed people in the early years of the last century and produced out of those Pulitzer Prize-winners, Nobel Prize-winners, scientists, public servants through the city university system of New York. So there's a lot of experience there on the part of the Jewish community.

And what we've tried to do is learn from each other. The Jewish community has particular interests in the United States, including remembering Israel. And the Latino community has interests related to education and immigration and economic progress. And so Bridges and Pathways is one vehicle to ignite conversation. But the larger vision is an effort that I've helped organize. It goes under the label American Sunrise, a kind of suggestion that each day starts new. It's a fresh, new start, and we should be optimistic about that.

And what we've tried to do is articulate a life plan for Latinos, a 10-year, 10-point life plan that basically says - I won't go through all 10 points - but says, I want to learn English. I'll put myself on a path to citizenship. I'll help my children prepare educationally. I will set expectations that they go to college. I'll begin to put together a financial plan for my family, improve my own skills. I will begin to think about the big commitments in our lives, like retirement planning and homeownership. And I will carry my home country in my heart, but commit to be a full American. So that's the - kind of the larger rubric of what I'm working on today.

CONAN: Well, the organizations that may help those people achieve those goals, that's important, too, because you can't do it alone.

CISNEROS: No. What we need to do is create a kind of a regimen, if you will, a framework, and then share it with the thousands of nonprofits across the country. For example, right now, we're working on this parental engagement life plan with an organization called TMC - used to be called the Texas Migrant Council - that addresses the needs of 134,000 children across eight states. It's no longer called the Texas Migrant Council, because it now works in - all the way to Ohio. But 134,000 children in 170 sites in eight states, good place to begin to articulate this logic of we're here to stay. We're really not going anywhere, and be - and we want to commit to the American idea.

I'm personally convinced that most important thing I can do with the civic energies that I have left over the next 20 years or so is figure how to take poor Latinos who are here as workers and integrate them sufficiently into the mainstream of American life that they can be contributors to the American way of life. I believe that our country, its prosperity, its national standing in the world will be impacted if we do not do this. The numbers are just too large now, in terms of the Latino population, to allow that population to sit on the sideline educationally or economically. If we're going to keep this country strong, Latinos have to figure into the mix.

CONAN: Well, another issue here is that a substantial fraction of that community is here illegally. Solving that problem and the problem of xenophobia by some people, who resent very much their presence in this country, that is critical.

CISNEROS: Well, you're absolutely right that a big percentage, I would say - you use the word, I think, a substantial percentage. Of the 50 million or so Latinos in the country, we think probably 10 million are here in an undocumented role. And so it is a substantial number, and reforming the immigration system in the framework that's been discussed: border security, a worker program, guest worker program and then a path to citizenship - which President Bush supported and many Democrats do - I think, is the right path.

I would say that if we can address this integration that I'm describing, where Latinos see themselves as signing on to the American dream in almost a contractual way - I'll work hard, I'll pay my taxes, I'll play by the rules, I want to contribute to the American future - that we can address the xenophobia that says these people are here to live off of welfare, these people are here to change our culture, these people are here to create a separatist state - none of that is true. These are workers.

Americans, really, if they understood, if they could see would be, I think, impressed with just the unbelievable work ethic and willingness to work, sacrifice today so their children can have better, ethic of Latinos in this country. We've got to show that by the kinds of means I'm describing.

CONAN: Former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, with us today from the city where he used to be the mayor, San Antonio. And we're asking callers today, immigrants, which groups helped you find your way in American society? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Marron(ph), and Marron is on the line with us from Las Vegas. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.

MARRON: Close enough.

CONAN: OK. Thanks.

MARRON: Yeah. I immigrated here when I was 14 years old, from Iran originally. And it was tough. And there was no organization that was help to immigrants from Iran at the time, I mean, there was still hostility back then toward the Persian population - and there still is. I relied on family and everything. I went to high school here. I have two - a graduate engineering degree from the University of Buffalo, and I became a chiropractor. So I feel like, as I said, with your bootstrap and you went on.

CONAN: There's a large Iranian community, Persian community in Los Angeles, I know. Is there much of one in Las Vegas?

MARRON: It's becoming bigger, I've noticed, largely because of the ones that are in Las Vegas - Los Angeles - want to move and get away from there, especially before the housing collapse, get away from the skyrocketing housing prices over there in Los Angeles, came and coming here. There's a fair amount here now. But when I first moved here, it wasn't as much. I moved here in 1997, and it wasn't as much here before.

CONAN: And are you and your fellow countrymen working to establish these kinds of organizations now for the people just arriving?

MARRON: There are, there are a lot of Persian society - there's some cultural society that meets once a month that I've attended a few times. It's becoming better. It's becoming bigger and bigger every - as the time goes by, you know what I mean?

CONAN: Yeah. Well, Marron, thanks very much for the call.

MARRON: No problem.

CISNEROS: Neal, let me just say to Marron, congratulations on being part of a community that has so successfully integrated. I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles, and the Persian community over in Westwood and Beverly Hills is very, very successful. Obviously, many came as professionals during the hostage and the revolution in Iran. And there are entire areas now of West Los Angeles where the signs, the stores, the entrepreneurs, the businesses are Persian and increasingly influential in the civic and political and economic life of the city. In fact, the business in which my own firm is located, the building, a very attractive, one of the finest buildings on the west side of Los Angeles, is owned by a man named Hekmat(ph). He treats it as his baby.

I mean, it's just an example of, you know, making an economic contribution in our society. So I congratulate you for that. And I would say that it's my sense that the Persian community is creating the organizations to help people along. You know, in the last century, as you mentioned, Neal, at the outset, when we had the last great movement of immigrants to the United States, people could fit into the society because they moved to Hungarian neighborhoods in Cleveland and Polish neighborhoods in Chicago and German neighborhoods in Milwaukee. And they brought their muscles with them, and they could lift carcasses in the stockyards and bales at the rail yard.

And there was a street-level society in America: There were churches that wanted them as parishioners, politicians who wanted their votes. There were unions that wanted them as workers. There was a street life. Today in our more mobile society, atomistic society, we're all sort of on our own. And yet, the demands of integration are more complex. Not only do you have to have strong muscles to work now, but you've got to be financially literate to function in the society. You've got to be technologically literate to work. So it's an odd and ironic disconnect, that at a time when it's harder to integrate, there are less supports to help people integrate. And so if we want to create the kind of America, which is - which we have known - connected, civically engaged, a sense of responsibility, one toward the other - we've got to reweave that fabric of connection.

CONAN: We're talking immigration and integration with Henry Cisneros. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Rooney(ph), and Rooney is with us from Portland.

ROONEY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. My question is mostly directed towards, you know, I'm a legal immigrant. I came here in 2000. And I got my graduate degree and I got a job. My question is, why are all the movements - and everything seems to be directed towards illegal immigrants, but nobody talks about the problems that we legal immigrants face and, you know, like application processing times take anywhere between five and 10 years. And how should we consider ourselves fully integrated if that keeps going on. And why nobody seems to focus on issues faced by people like me.

CISNEROS: Well, there is a lot of focus. The business community is working very hard. In fact, all of the corporations that are lined up in support of immigration reform are working on the H1-B visa system to try to get students who we value to be able to stay here after we've invested in their education and we want the best and the brightest to stay. And engineers who want to come here from other countries - I mean, Silicon Valley is short of talent - and many other technology centers in the United States. So you would find great, great support from corporations. They're out - if there's going to be immigration reform, it's going to be, in part, because corporations are pressing - Republicans in particular, who listen to business to

ROONEY: Right. But my question is...

CISNEROS: ...allow, you know, legal immigration by technical people.

CONAN: Rooney, go ahead.

ROONEY: Sorry. But, you know, my - the help people like me need are beyond corporate, because our applications are already being processed, but these processing times by the government takes so long that (unintelligible).

CISNEROS: But that's my point. My point is that there's not enough slots. The government hasn't allocated enough slots.

CONAN: And that's why it takes so long.

CISNEROS: For (unintelligible). And that's why it takes so long. And the lines are so long, and that's why corporations are saying, we need more. You got to loosen up the system. So that's what I'm talking about. I'm sorry if I didn't make myself clear.

CONAN: Rooney, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ROONEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Margaret, Margaret with us from Morristown, New Jersey.

MARGARET: Yes, hi. I emigrate from Poland 20 years ago. I came here after I graduate college in Poland with a master's degree. Unfortunately, in here, that didn't mean much. I had to go back to school in order to be able to work here. My biggest challenge was the English language. So basically, a friend of mine was the one who told me one day that she's not going to translate anymore for me, so that's how I end up learning English. But after I did that and got my - I was a legal immigrant, got my citizenship, then Catholic Church, a priest from Catholic Church was the one who basically challenged me to go and do more. So that's how I end up going to graduate school, finishing my school - getting degree in physical therapy, and that's what I do right now.

CONAN: Well, congratulations.

CISNEROS: What a great story, a great story. And you're right, the churches - and the Catholic Church has a long tradition of integration of immigrants, and continues. In fact the U.S. Conference of Bishops is one of the most vocal on the subject of immigrants and what they need. And, you know, it's an interesting thing, Neal, I believe that though we pay verbal homage to the concept of an immigrant nation, we really don't fully appreciate what that means. I mean, the United States is so different than countries, even allies of ours, in the northern industrial powerful part of the world who are not sensitive to immigrants.

For example, Japan is now officially declining in population. It is getting smaller and much older. Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, even Russia, all getting smaller in population. In fact, I saw some analysis the other day, that said Spain, at its present birth rate of non-replacement, not only will grow smaller, but over the next 100 years will be one-half its present size. And part of the problem is they never developed an immigrant friendliness, a system that respected and accepted immigrants. Japan is hostile to people who are not Japanese, whether they're Korean or Filipino, they're distinctly second-class citizens.

MARGARET: May I just add one thing?

CONAN: Very quickly, if you will.

MARGARET: I have to - I absolutely agree. This is the only country in the world which allows you to come 20 years before, with not speaking the language and being able to go back to school, get your master's degree and work in here. I would not be able to achieve that much in anywhere else. It's still, with all the hostile and everything that's going on - this is the best country in the world.

CONAN: Margaret...

CISNEROS: We get the best and the brightest, the most energetic, the people who have the gumption to get up, leave a place and come to America. And then, those same values, that same energy fuels their contributions in this country.

CONAN: Henry Cisneros, thanks very much for your time today.

CISNEROS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Henry Cisneros, executive chairman for the real estate development company CityView, co-chair of Bridges and Pathways, an organization he founded to promote integration of Latino immigrants. He joined us from the studios of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. Tomorrow, a preview of the upcoming term at the Supreme Court. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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