BY ERIN ARCHERD
“How we answer the question of a guest worker program, and whether we allow people to come and ultimately become part of American society, has real consequences for native-born Hispanics,” warned Maria Echaveste, former deputy chief of staff to President Clinton and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, in her keynote speech for last weekend’s Ninth Annual Latino Law & Public Policy Conference, “Nuevas Fronteras: Latino Leadership at the Forefront,” co-sponsored by Harvard Law School’s La Alianza and the Latino Caucus of the Kennedy School of Government.
In her Thursday evening speech, titled “The Battle for Immigration: Values, Economics, and Politics,” Echaveste explained to the audience at the Kennedy School of Government’s Forum that immigration is about more than labor disputes or potential swing votes from the Latino community; it is a reflection of American views toward citizenship. She compared the immigration of Latinos, largely Mexican, into the United States with that of Turks into Germany and Filipinos into Saudi Arabia, where they are often treated as second-class citizens and not as full members of those societies.
“If we go the route of Germany, of Saudi Arabia – ‘Let’s just have the workers here,’ – well how do you know who’s legal, who’s a guest worker, and who’s an American citizen, when you have people who are American citizens who look like the people that are coming into work?” Echaveste questioned.
Such a viewpoint, she argued, might pull apart a history of defining America as a work-in-progress in which groups are absorbed into American society rather than kept separate. Immigration and community building were recurring themes during the three-day conference, which drew panelists and speakers from across the country.
Friday began with a Latinas Breakfast hosted by Dean Kagan and featuring Anna Maria Chavez, director of intergovernmental affairs for Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Chavez, who holds a J.D. from the University of Arizona, spoke about her undergraduate years at Yale and the pressure that was felt by the group then dubbed “Sun Children” by the press, minorities who were held up as models and suffered burn out from the spotlight. She went on to share stories about her life in public service, and emphasized the importance of “pulling your sisters up with you,” remaining uncompromising in your values, and staying persistent when the challenges of a career in politics threaten to throw you off track.
The conference continued with a day-long series of panels in the Ames Courtroom. The first panel, “Innovations in the Criminal Justice System,” featured a broad range of perspectives, from a judge, a deputy superintendent with the Boston Police Department, and a legal scholar from Texas. All three, however, stressed that empathy, compassion, and respect were critical in dealing with at-risk populations.
The day’s second panel, “Community and Economic Development in Emerging Immigrant Neighborhoods,” highlighted the shifting trends in immigration patterns in the United States. Immigrants are increasingly settling in suburbs rather than major metropolitan areas, creating unique community development needs. From Los Angles, to Houston, to Lawrence, an old mill town less than an hour from Boston, the panelists discussed the difficulties in organizing communities and providing information as well as encouraging growth and addressing gentrification once areas begin to thrive.
Friday’s final panel, “Following the Money Trail: The Effect of Remittances in Politics”, explored the increasingly competitive nature and loose regulation of one the United States’ largest markets. Remittances are the process by which migrants send money back to their countries of origin, and in 2005 at least $232 billion was sent from the U.S. to other countries. These funds provide a huge amount of income for families in other countries, often making up most of their living expenses. The panelists discussed not only the market dynamics of sending and receiving such large amounts of cash, but also the implications on the economies of the U.S. and the countries to which the money is sent.
Saturday’s panel at the Kennedy School of Government dealt with “Bridging the Gap: Black-Latino Relations and Coalition Building”. The panel, co-sponsored by the Black Policy Conference and the Black Law Students Association, examined the common ground that exists between the Black and Latino communities and discussed some of the areas of perceived discord, particularly around issues of immigration and job availability. Ultimately, the panelists stressed that common neighborhoods shared by Blacks and Latinos led to greater shared interests and less competition for resources.
The conference drew a mixture of people from the community, Boston-area schools, and the many schools of Harvard. The organizers felt the conference met its goal of inspiring and re-energizing people toward careers in public service and providing participants opportunities to network with students, alumni, and professionals from a wide variety of fields.