“We are all facing basically the same fundamental problems that trickle down as a result of national immigration policies,’’ said Kansas Hispanic Affairs Commissioner Elias García, who called the meeting. “We’re the thermometer to see where the hotspots and the trouble spots are, and we can’t keep reinventing the wheel. We need to learn from each others’ policies.’’
While Texas and New York both sent delegates, most of the commissioners came from states that are not traditionally thought of as having large Latino communities, such as Idaho and Mississippi.
Ohio’s commissioner, Ezra C. Escudero, attended. According to Escudero, “Due to weather conditions, only 10 out of 18 states were ultimately able to make it—Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York (advisor to the Gov.), Ohio, Texas (advisor to the Gov.), Utah, and Washington.
Michigan’s director of its Commission on Spanish Speaking Affairs, Marylou Olivarez-Mason, was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.
Both in Ohio and Michigan, the Latino population numbers have dramatically increased since 1990.
In Nebraska, the Latino population has grown by 225 percent since 1990, according to census figures.
“The demographics are everything now. In the next 20 years we are going to be at least a fourth of Nebraska,’’ said Olga Kanne, Nebraska vice chairwoman of the Mexican-American Commission, who drove through a snow storm to attend the summit.
Kanne said few rural Nebraskan towns understand the economic issues that are driving the new wave of migration to her state, nor are they prepared to take on the challenges that come with accommodating an emerging immigrant population.
None of the commissioners is directly responsible for crafting immigration policy—that’s handled on a federal level—but they often end up finding solutions for people who entered the country illegally.
In states like California, Florida, and Texas, Latino legislative caucuses promote bills that address whether to issue drivers’ licenses or in-state tuition to immigrants. But in Nebraska, advocating for Latino affairs can be a challenge, Kanne said.
So rather than simply watching as immigration policy unfolds in a piecemeal fashion, state by state, García said he suggested the meeting to give policy-makers an opportunity to share strategies.
“Sometimes it’s in the states that you don’t think about that you have the opportunity to implement creative, cutting-edge initiatives that help Latinos in those communities,’’ he said.
Yet what is considered cutting-edge immigration policy in one state may become a major campaign issue in another.
García said one of the conference’s main goals is to organize a national organization to represent Latino affairs commissioners on a national level.
There is, for example, no national advisory office that coordinates Latino policy at the federal level, according to Allen Abney, a spokesman for the White House. That leaves much of the ground-level decision-making to the state commissions, many of which are political appointees of the governor.
In Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt narrowed the role of the state’s Latino commission to focus more directly on business issues.
Editor’s Note: Rico de La Prensa contributed to this report.