Raul Yzaguirre Defines 'This American Moment'

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civil rights activist Raul Yzaguirre

Raul Yzaguirre was awarded the Medallion of Excellence for Community Service at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in 2003. Stephen J. Boitano/Getty Images hide caption

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Under the leadership of civil rights activist Raul Yzaguirre, the National Council of La Raza grew into a major Latino advocacy organization in the United States. In the latest installment of This American Moment, Yzaguirre weighs in on what is at stake in the 2008 presidential election.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, This American Moment. During the Democratic and Republican Conventions, we spoke with a series of guests, politicians, journalists, writers and thinkers. We asked each to take a step back and put this election and this campaign season in context. What is at stake? What does this election mean to them? We're continuing the series until Election Day.

In just a moment, civil rights leader and former president of the National Council of La Raza, Raul Yzaguirre joins us, and we'd like to hear from you about Latino civil rights. Is it just about immigration? Is there more that is not being talked about? We want to know about what This American Moment means to you. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Under the leadership of Raul Yzaguirre, the National Council of La Raza grew in to a premier national Hispanic advocacy organization and think tank in the United States. He joins us now here at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe, Arizona, and it's a pleasure have you on the program.

Mr. RAUL YZAGUIRRE (Former President, National Council of La Raza): Good to be here.

CONAN: And let me ask you, what does this American moment mean to you?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: The election, you mean?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: It means an opportunity to motivate and bring out the Latino vote. We are a growing community. Our numbers are increasing. We are a very young community, but more and more folks are turning to the voting age and so we have a large number of voter registration efforts, perhaps the most in our history. There is a great deal of attention paid by both candidates to our votes, so it's an opportunity to show our muscle, if you will.

CONAN: You say there's been a lot of attention paid by both campaigns to your vote, yet we hear very little talk about immigration from either candidate.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I think they're avoiding it for obvious reasons, but it remains a top issue within our community and within the American people, and I suspect that it will be on the agenda early on in whatever administration takes office. And the good news from our perspective is that both candidates are committed to a comprehensive immigration reform.

CONAN: Yet Senator McCain, who proposed that immigration bill in Congress and was one of its principle sponsors, now says he would vote against his own bill.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: My understanding of the way he said it is that he feel that the American people want the voters to be secure, and after that happens he's prepared to lead an effort to get comprehensive immigration reform.

CONAN: And you say, for obvious reasons, neither candidate is addressing the issue. What's the obvious reason?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: The obvious reason is that we have a very strange situation where the president of the United States, the leaders in both Congress - both sides of the House in Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, the FLCIO, the major religious organizations, all were in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, but you had a very shrill and effective talk-show minority, greater talk show who were able to galvanize the American people against this bill.

CONAN: Are you surprised, in a way, given that what happened there, are you surprised that you're not seeing this issue being demagogued(ph) in this campaign?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Well, I'm not sure it's not being demagogued at the local level. I think it is still being demagogued, but I'm happy that at least that either candidate is demagoguing this issue, yes, very much so.

CONAN: In terms of the Latino civil rights, are we just talking about immigration here? Does that eclipse everything else?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: No, no. I think education is a Latino civil rights issue for Latino community. We're the most undereducated minority in this country. And we have - education finance reform is a big issue because we have school districts where you're starting at $4,000 per child. That characterizes the Latino community. And the other school districts where you're $10,000 per child, that characterizes the other communities, so we can't expect a fair outcome when you have those kinds of inequities.

CONAN: You've seen - you've been around a while. You've - well, to borrow the president's term, you've been in this rodeo before. I wonder, how do you think things have changed from your vantage point over the past, 30, 40, 50 years?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Well, we've come into the agenda. I mean, we've come into the radar screen of the American public and that's good news. We are now the largest minority in this country and - but instead of being a minority that's respected and treasured, unfortunately, because of immigration and for a number of other reasons, we're not seen as a value to the society.

CONAN: Not seen as legitimate, in a way?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I'm not sure if that's the right word, but we are sometimes - get the feeling that we are strangers in our own country.

CONAN: Strangers in your own country. There is a sort of a divide within the Latino community between those who have been here - many people for generation upon generation upon generation, and newer arrivals, as some of whom arrive here without papers.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Well, even those who - let me give you a better history. During the '30s, when we had the last Depression, perhaps close to a million Latino - particularly Mexican-American citizens, were illegally deployed into Mexico, illegally deported according to our laws. So what you're seeing is some of the grandchildren of those people who were illegally deported coming back to this country. We also had a million Brazilo(ph) workers coming into this country. And so are those folks who were brought here initially under legal circumstances and began to form a pattern of working in this country.

CONAN: There is also a pattern that does form, as you suggest, during economic bad times when people seem to want to find scapegoats. Do you fear that Latinos will be the scapegoats?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Absolutely, we have a tradition in this country of trying to blame some group for malaise, whether it's the Italians during the crime days or whether it's Chinese workers who take our jobs. That's an unfortunate human condition.

CONAN: We're talking with Raul Yzaguirre, the civil rights activist, the former head of the National Council of La Raza, a national Hispanic advocacy organization and a think tank in the United States. If you'd like to join the conversation on This American Moment, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with Charles, and Charles is on the line with us from Chicago, Illinois.

CHARLES (Caller): Yes, Raul, I want to commend Raul for all of his participation and how he has opened the doors for many second and third generation Latinos. Raul, the best to you.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Thank you.

CHARLES: My comment is - is from the perspective that Latinos are scapegoats right now. And the unfortunate thing that the whole immigration issue is an issue of racism and prejudice and - are easy to identify, just like the blacks are black individuals, they have black skin. Latinos are brown and they have brown skin, and they have a last name that's identifiable. This isn't going to be easy unless we really address the issue from that perspective and that Americans need to understand that Latinos are in their home. They are in their homeland, they are in America, and they are Americans, and that we need to really make a major effort to change the ideology.

I think when we talk about revolution and change taking place, I think what needs to change is the way we think and how we formulate our ideas and our philosophies about who is American and who this country really belongs to. I think this election is an opportunity for the second and third generation Latinos to take a very serious stand and claim their heritage as Americans and participate fully in American society.

CONAN: Thank you for that, Charles. And I wonder, Raul Yzaguirre, as you listen to him, I'm sure that you find much to agree with. I wonder, though, and let me ask you both. Do you find any - is it just racism? Is it only racism if you say you want to protect the border?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: No, of course not. There's lots of folks who are immigration restrictionists are not racist, and they're concerned about the legitimate issues such as crime and inability to control our borders. We are a sovereign nation, and we have the right to control our own borders, there's no question about that. But the fact remains that there are a lot, for example, there are a lot of Irish folks in Boston who are undocumented aliens. They came out in the immigrant race and protests, and nobody talks about those folks. And so there's an element of racism that we need to ecognize.

CONAN: Charles, what do you think?

CHARLES: I really think there are many issues, not only just racism, like there's an issue of security, but those kinds of issues, I think, are bloated up. I think one of the issues is that if we have an issue of security, there's biometric card identification systems we can put together. I think it's more that the American people, the American public needs to understand why Latinos are here, why Hispanics are here. They've been here. I was - I was born here. My parents came here in the late '40s. You know, we're - and I'm from a Puerto Rican background, but the Latino immigration issue is my problem, and even if I am Puerto Rican and I am an American citizen.

I think that if the American public understood more of what these issues mean and how we can deal with security issues, hw we can protect our borders, how important trade with Mexico, with Latin America is, how important to maintain good relations with places like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and how important those things are for the stability of the hemisphere. I think it's a matter, like I said, of a revolution of ideas, of changing thinking. And I think Raul and his organization has done that in the past and is really reaching out to second and third generation Latinos, as well as to Americans, the American public. I think the rhetoric that goes out there, you know...

CONAN: Charles...

CHARLES: You know, to protect America, that's - I think that's what affects it most.

CONAN: OK, Charles. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

CHARLES: You're welcome.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get - this is Michael. Michael is with us from St. Louis.

MICHELE(ph) (Caller): Hi, it's Michele.

CONAN: Michele, all right. Excuse me. I misread it. Go ahead please, Michele.

MICHELE: Fine. Basically, I agree with the previous caller. Being a Latino myself, my parents came from Puerto Rico in the '60s, and I was first generation born here. But still, immigration is such an issue, and I think that duty of our president and our - of the Congressmen and Senate is to educate the American people on the meaning of immigration. Because right now it seems we've been victimized and we're portrayed as the villains who want to come over the borders and steal the American jobs because of the economy, the way it's been going for the last eight years, and I feel as if we've been a scapegoat in some way, and I'd just like to hear what our guest says to that.

CONAN: Raul Yzaguirre?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: You know, the fundamental facts about the Hispanic reality are unknown to the American public. Latinos make good Americans. We work harder than any other group in this country. We fight more valiantly and spare more blood for this nation than any other group in this country. We're more family-oriented. We have deep religious beliefs. By every criteria that you think about, free enterprise, Latinos exceed and excel. So the story that needs to get out is that if you want America to be American, then support more Latinos coming into this country.

CONAN: Michele, thanks very much for the call. And again, I apologize for getting your name wrong. We're talking with Raul Yzaguirre, the former head of the National Council of La Raza on This American Moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can go now to James, and James is with us from Ronkonkoma in New York.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. The point I would like to make is I certainly don't feel that I'm a racist at all, and I'm certainly not anti-immigration, but I feel the language accommodation has gone too far. I was born here, but my grandparents came from Germany and they learned the language. I really - as a native-born American, I resent pressing one for English. That's all.

CONAN: You resent pressing one for English. There's like - there's about eight languages there, usually on the bank.

JAMES: What's that? It's not what I saw on the phone.

CONAN: OK. Well, thanks very much. Let's talk about the ATM Machine.

JAMES: That's something that I believe that the Latino community needs to address if they want to integrate properly into our society, and I feel they're welcome here.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, James. And Raul Yzaguirre, this is an issue for a lot of Americans. Again, that ATM machine offers about eight different languages. But go ahead, please.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: The facts are that Latinos who come into this country as immigrants learn English faster than any other previous immigrant group. Not fast enough. We think - we think that more needs to be done and more resources need to be made available. But you see folks getting off at 2 o'clock in the morning, got to work, to attend English as a second language class, and that shows the kind of commitment they have for learning English.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Andrew, Andrew with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW: I am an illegal immigrant living in Tulsa but I am white, English-speaking with a British last name. And you know, guests touched on this already, saying that racism isn't the big issue, but I think that racism is bigger than it's - it's being portrayed because I don't have the same problems that obviously Latino immigrants do.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I didn't say that racism was not a big issue. I said that people who are immigration restrictionists are not necessarily racist.

ANDREW: I see.

CONAN: Andrew.

ANDREW: Well, you - you mentioned the Irish, and I completely agree with that point. Nobody sees white, English-speaking illegal immigrants as a problem. That's why I think that racism is what it mostly boils down to.

CONAN: Where are you from, Andrew?

ANDREW: I am from South Africa.

CONAN: South Africa, all right. Well, thanks very much for the call.

ANDREW: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an email from Thomas in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Can you please ask your guest, what's the difference between immigration and illegal immigration? My wife just became a new American citizen, legally done. She and I believe rewarding people who break the law is a slap in the face of all the people who immigrate legally.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: That's a debate that needs more time than we have, but let me point out that it's not as easy as you think it is. People who come from Cuba on our shores, no different from people who come from Mexico, but they're considered illegal when they step on our shores. Similarly, a person who comes over on a tourist visa is legal, but the minute he or she overstays, they are too - they become undocumented.

So yes, we can mince words if we want to but the main reason is - the main fact is that America needs labor, and there's a demand for this labor. And we need to find a way to meet that need, that demand.

CONAN: And there was a reform proposal that was brought up in Congress last time, a solid approach towards that which would involve, you know, a lot of penalties for people who are here illegally.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Well, they had, I guess, a proposal which was not perfect but it went in the right direction.

CONAN: I also have to ask you, just in terms of getting back to the election and politics. Earlier on, you endorsed Senator Clinton...

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I did.

CONAN: When she was up for the Democratic nomination. Now that she's out of the running, who are you endorsing now?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Well, I'm beginning to be more an op-ed writer. I'm going to keep that to myself, OK...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: But I think we have two great candidates and I hope we can bring the kind of change that we need.

CONAN: Raul Yzaguirre, very nice to have you on the program today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: My pleasure.

CONAN: Raul Yzaguirre, the former president of the National Council of La Raza, with us here at the Arizona Historical Museum in Tempe, Arizona.

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