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Immigrants, Immigrant Policy, and Foundation of the Next Century's Latino Politics: The Declining Salience of the Civil Rights Agenda in an Era of High Immigration

Date Published: September 09, 2018

The fundamental question that we ask in this paper is whether the public policy needs of immigrant Latinos can be understood as part of the civil rights agenda. Our tentative answer is that they are distinct. If this is the case, we indicate that the policy needs of immigrants will steadily eclipse the civil rights issues that have galvanized Latino elites and, to a lesser extent, Latinos as a whole from the 1960s to the present.
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Often lost in the discussion of the initiation of federal civil rights policies in the 1960s is the passage of a major reform in U.S. immigration policy. This law-the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (79 Statutes at Large 911, enacted October 3, 1965)-was no less revolutionary than the Civil Rights Act of the same year and found its intellectual foundation in the same national effort to eliminate barriers based on race. In the case of the Immigration Act, the "national-origin quotas" first enacted in the 1920s were eliminated and replaced with legislation that was less sensitive to nationality (maximum country and regional quotas were enacted). The national-origin quotas had sought to retain the nationality mix of immigrants of the turn-of-the-century. In their place, the 1965 Act based immigration to the United States on family reunification (favoring potential immigrants with immediate family members in the United States) and labor market skills (favoring potential immigrants with needed or specialized job skills). The impact of the 1965 immigration law was to profoundly alter the ethnic mix of immigrants and to provide the foundation for a surge in immigration that continues today.  


Two ethnic populations have most benefited from these changes: Latinos and Asians. Each of these immigrant/ethnic populations had been present in large numbers prior to 1965 and both had been the targets of ongoing discrimination that targeted not just immigrants, but also generation after generation of the U.S.-born. Major civil rights legislation, often originally designed to redress violations of African American rights, was rapidly expanded in the late 1960s and 1970s to include Latinos and Asian Americans, though we have argued elsewhere that these extensions- at least, in the case of the Latino community-may have incorrectly assumed that the content of the discrimination against African Americans and Latinos was similar and hence the remedies should be the same (de la Garza and DeSipio 1993).  


This foundation of this coverage for Latinos and Asian Americans (a case that we know less well and do not presume to speak to in this paper) in civil rights legislation was the experience of public- and private-sector discrimination against U.S. and foreign-born Latinos. This pattern of discrimination based on ethnicity and ancestry has been extensively documented in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican populations and does not need repeating here (Grebler, Moore, and Guzman 1970; Lacuna 1981; San Miguel 1987; Sánchez-Korrol 1994). The effort to fight this pervasive discrimination and to demand equal rights as citizens shaped Mexican American and Puerto Rican politics in the twentieth century (Jennings and Rivera 1984; Hammerback, Jensen, and Gutierrez 1985; Marquez 1993; Pycior 1997) and offered a unifying theme as Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and other Latinos began to examine their common experiences and needs in the process of building a Latino politics (Padilla 1985; Moreno 1996). Thus, as Latino politics began to emerge in the 1970s, it was a politics shaped by the civil rights



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