THE marches that took place in the spring of 2006 across the nation and in the Houston area as a response to proposed anti-immigrant legislation reminded me of a quote that appeared in the now-defunct Houston Post’s opinion section Sunday Punch in 1994.
The quote was in the “Heard and Noted” section beside a quote from President Clinton. The quote read, “Justice in America is like a baby being born. You got to participate in its conception or that baby is never going to look like you.”
I remember the statement because I said it to a reporter who was writing a story about Hispanic voter participation. At the time, I was leading the effort in Houston for a national nonprofit organization to encourage legal residents, who met the requirements, to apply for U.S. citizenship.
I had also initiated programmatic activities to address Hispanic voter registration, voter education, and voter participation issues with the support of the local affiliate of the most powerful Spanish-language television network in the United States. It was a mission that carried over from organizing efforts of a local Latino political action committee that I got involved in 1990.
My statement about justice encompassed an understanding of politics in the United States that I had gained through my education at the University of Houston and experience in grass-roots organizing. That is, if Hispanics or any American is to be taken seriously when they make demands of elected representatives at every level of government, Hispanics and all American citizens need to register to vote and vote in greater numbers.
I am a naturalized citizen, and my remark also reflected the realization that citizenship and voting go hand-in-hand. Legal permanent residents of Hispanic origin need to understand that the only way that they can ensure America will remain a land of opportunity is by seeking U.S. citizenship and becoming full and active members of American society. Only through the act of obtaining American citizenship and voting can Americans ensure that the laws that they have benefited from will remain in place for those who follow them.
I spent 15 years trying to advance the mission of increasing the participation of Hispanics and all Americans in the political process while imparting this message. Working side by side with many committed individuals (many of them marchers), during that time, I had a clear understanding of what the mission entailed and what it would take to achieve it.
Although I admired their courage to act, I did not see marching as an effective tool to address Hispanics’ concerns in modern-day politics. Marches have made an impact on the history of America for many groups but do not work as well for Hispanics in the United States. Why? A Pew Hispanic Center report, ‘Hispanics and the 2004 Election,’ indicate that only thirty-nine percent of all Hispanics are actually eligible to vote. Many Hispanics cannot vote because of their immigrant status, age or other factors. For that reason, Hispanics are not the electoral Giant that some will like you to believe; and, extremist political activists who like to scapegoat Latinos for all ills in American society realize it.
Still, this does not mean that Hispanics are electorally insignificant. From 1990 to 2008, community-based organizations civic engagement efforts have resulted in some progress. Close to 400,000 legal permanent residents obtained American citizenship via the Houston Citizenship and Immigration Office — half of those being of Hispanic origin. And during that period, the number of Hispanic surname voters participating in a Presidential election in Harris County increased from an estimated 20,000 to 155,000. Moreover, according to experts, the total percentage of the vote that Hispanics constitute in Houston city elections jumped from about 5 percent to as high as 14 percent. These trends were manifest in several elections won by Hispanic candidates, including Gracie Saenz and Orlando Sanchez at the citywide level in the 1990s. In 2001, Sanchez almost defeated the incumbent mayor in a city of Houston election; in 2002, Sylvia Garcia was elected to the Harris County Commissioners Court; in 2006, Sanchez became the first Hispanic elected to a countywide office; and, in 2008 Adrian Garcia became the second Hispanic elected to a countywide office.
Despite the gains that have been made, there is a lot of work to be done. The voting numbers show that although Latinos are the second largest population group in the United States and now the largest population group in Harris County, their political sway is not commensurate with that statistical reality. In Harris County, there are more than 1.4 million Hispanics, but according to the voter registrar, there are only about 287,000 voters with Hispanic surnames on the voter rolls. In Houston, Hispanics now make up more than 40 percent of the population, but in recent Houston elections, the lowest voting City Council districts— F, H and I — have a common characteristic: Hispanics constitute the majority or largest percentage of the population.
What does this have to do with the marches and justice? The civil action is taken to bring awareness and galvanize public opinion and policy debates. But inevitably, the marchers want to affect legislation at the highest levels in a decisive manner. However, history tells me that to achieve that goal, the marchers who are eligible to cast ballots are going to have to back up their civil action with a more important march — a march to the polls. If they do not, the likelihood is that their efforts will fall short of the desired goal and result only in giving them their 15 minutes of fame, lip service from politicians trying to get in front of the parade and a short-term answer to a complicated issue that merits a long-term solution.
Whether you agree or disagree with the civil action or not, marching brings attention to an issue. But if the marchers want American justice to truly reflect their point of view, they need to understand that in modern America, marching alone will not achieve justice. The marchers must understand that they must behave like responsible red, white and blue Americans and engage in public policy debates from the inception and not wait until a bill is about to be passed or after a bill becomes law.
And most important, marchers and all Americans of Hispanic ancestry must come to terms with this reality: American justice is defined and shaped by citizens who participate in the electoral process.
(This essay appeared in the Houston Chronicle in its original form on March 30, 2006. Since, for the sake of timeliness and clarity, some parts have been updated. The essay was titled After the marching’s done Hispanics must go vote: The key to influencing U.S. policy is the ballot by the Chronicle. )