COLUMN: Working-class Latinos getting left behind

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Joe BarreraBy: Joe Barrera March 13, 2018

People assume because I am a Latino writer that I am automatically an “expert” on immigration who favors open borders, amnesty, etc. This is understandable, given that the media constantly report on illegal immigration from Latin America and that logically Latinos should want more of their brethren in the U.S. This is not true for me, even if I recognize that we need immigrant labor in the U.S., preferably under the auspices of an intelligent guest worker program, established by treaty with the sending nations. Why we have not been able to create such a program after a century of fruitless efforts to keep out the Mexicans, I don’t know. But I do know that a visa program under which workers enter and depart in an orderly fashion, with their rights and wages protected by the U.S. government and the governments of Latin countries, is eminently possible.

The immigration issue, of course, is an Anglo American issue. It’s the white folks who fear the “brown wave.” U.S. Latinos are mostly indifferent to it, even if we are always confused with the immigrants. And we are getting tired of that.

Immigration is not a salient issue with us. The vast majority of Latinos are native-born U.S. citizens, a fact ignored by just about everybody. U.S. Latinos are overwhelmingly a working-class community, and like the American white working class with whom we identify, we are not interested in the kind of work that immigrants do and have always done in this nation of immigrants.

Instead, Latino citizens are preoccupied with the American dream – moving up the economic ladder. This means qualifying for the middle-class jobs that pay a living wage, not easy for workers whose skills do not match today’s high tech economy. Even if unattainable for the older generation, the American dream means giving our children the education and job skills they need to succeed in the world. It means finding a decent affordable place to live, which is getting harder every day.

In spite of progress made, many Latinos and African Americans find these goals difficult to reach. So do working-class whites, which means that the real problem is not a race problem. It’s a class problem. Too many working-class people are getting left behind in this economy. I only wish that politicians would wake up to this.

Republicans may sing a populist song that seems to appeal to working-class resentments, but their message is often tainted with xenophobia, even racism. Read the conservative newspaper columnists who under the perennial shibboleth of “law and order” want Trump’s ICE to arrest and break up families. They want ICE to invade cities who do the right thing by sheltering honest hardworking people.

And the wall. The whole wall idea makes no sense. Ask yourself this: If we build a 20-foot wall around our country, theoretically unclimbable by two Mexicans with a ladder, who will do the hard, dirty, low-paying work? If you are a conservative who believes in the value of hard work will you do that work to satisfy your values? You will not. And don’t look at the working poor.

If you believe we still have U.S. citizens who want to pick crops and work in slaughter houses, you have been living under a rock. U.S. Latinos, African Americans and poor whites will not do that kind of work. We have abandoned that work in pursuit of the American dream, just like the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs did before us.

The difference between us and the white groups is that they have found their dream. We still have not found ours. That’s not all. Just listen to Trump himself. Trump scares Latino citizens who worry that he will come after us next. This is not an unreasonable fear.

The Democrats are not much better. Many wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to Dreamers and other immigrants. Listen to national Democratic candidates. Their support of immigrants is the right message, but it rings hollow when they ignore the huge Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities across the country. About the Puerto Ricans: How can we tolerate the shameless neglect of an island devastated by the hurricane?

This is also true close to home. If you are a liberal, when is the last time you heard the otherwise excellent Dem candidates for Colorado governor, for attorney general, for U.S. Congress speak to the pressing needs of the 800,000 Latino Coloradans who are not immigrants?

I have not heard a single Democratic Colorado candidate in this year’s crowded primary field who has seriously addressed the needs of working-class Colorado Latinos.

We have people who know the issues, leaders who can speak to the needs of the Mexican Americans, the Chicanos, the Latinos, all U.S. citizens. But nobody is interested in our cause.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.