We all welcome the new-year with great expectations that whatever our shortcomings “en el año viejo” we will do better moving forward. We set our goals and recommit to staying on track. As a community Latinos should also do the same.
In the last few years, key political battles have been fought and won by Latinos. One in Paterson where Mayor Joey Torres built a coalition that catapulted him back to office. And recently by Mayor Wilda Diaz of Perth Amboy, who triumphed over her County’s Democratic Chair’s challenge to her choice of Town Attorney. Such battles are important because our leaders are demonstrating that they can govern on their own terms and in service of their communities. Across the state, new Latino legislators, Freeholders, Mayors and Councilmembers have taken office and fought for issues that matter to their constituencies. As our electoral power grows, that kind of leadership matters in advocating for the priorities of our communities.
But as important as the “Game of Thrones” local politics are, the first month of 2016 has already presented us with serious challenges that require our collective creativity and grit to overcome. Our leaders must reassess how to use their collective influence in labor and business, on the Democratic and Republican side, and at the grassroots level to gain traction, build political power and stand up for a real agenda that advances the concerns of Latinos in statewide and federal matters.
From the NJ State House to the Halls of Congress, the following five issues will impact our community in 2016 and we must organize locally to face those challenges united:
- The Obama Administration Immigration Raids
Just last week, the Obama Administration conducted immigration raids targeting Central American refugees’ adults and their children. More than 120 people were taken into custody in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Texas setting up a wave of fear among immigrant communities across the United States. NJ advocates did report the arrest of families in New Brunswick and Freehold, creating chaos and confusion in our immigrant neighborhoods. In response, community groups organized a protest outside of the federal building in Newark to demonstrate opposition to ICE’s plan to continue deporting and separating families. This latest action by the Obama administration is being described by Latino activists as a betrayal; on one hand the President talks about compassion for refugees, and at the same time he orders Central American refugees to be sent back to communities plagued by violent gangs. And make no mistake, these Central American women and children are refugees feeling violence as serious as any war in the world today. They are not economic immigrants but are forced to flee for their lives and protect their children from forced recruitment into violent gangs who are fighting for territory control for their illicit drug trade.
Places like Union City and Elizabeth are home to thousands of Central Americans who are now more fearful that, instead of immigration reform and humane compassion, their family members and friends will received more intimidation from ICE. We must organize and demand that our local politicians join us in petitioning Pres. Obama to stop the deportations. We must step up our local organizing of immigrant communities and demand that Central American minors be allowed to reunite with their families, and for all immigrant families to stay together.
A policy of deportation and intimidation creates further insecurity in our communities and our towns and cities will suffer as more immigrants are afraid to collaborate with the authorities on local safety issues. Immigrants are here and it’s up to local elected officials to manage their integration into our local communities while the Congress gets is act together and realizes that the only viable solution to our immgration crisis is to enact immigration reform that re-unites families and normalizes the flow of immigrants from our neighbors in our own hemisphere.
- Municipal IDs and NJ Driver’s License Bill
Increase in the number of raids in our communities does nothing more than create greater insecurity in the lives of many immigrants. Immigrants make up 28% of the NJ’s workforce, documented and undocumented, and therefore we should embrace them and make them to feel safe in the communities they reside. Places like Newark have done just that by adopting Municipal IDs laws that helps local residents have a sense of security and belonging when negotiating their daily lives with local institutions like banks and the police. Other municipalities like Perth Amboy are considering these laws and many other localities should follow their lead. In addition to the municipal ID, we should continue to push for the NJ Drivers’ License Bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth) and Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex) so that once and for all, hard working immigrants who are already members of our communities can get to and from work safely, and can contribute locally to making their neighborhoods safe.
- The Gaming Expansion Referendum
The Casino fight is all about power and who benefits from expansion of Casino gaming. Having represented Casino workers in the past, I know that this is a high-stakes game where a lot of money is on the table for investors and the casino companies. Elected officials claiming to want to bring more revenue and create jobs cling to Casinos as the magic pill that would increase employment in the urban sectors. But once the Casinos have been built with union labor as the building trades rightfully demand, will the service jobs created in our communities be low wage jobs or living wage jobs? The Latino and African American community in Jersey City, Newark, and in Bergen County should be organizing around some version of Community Benefits Agreements, or local partnership MOUs, so that the investment and tax incentives that are coming to North Jersey result in long term positive investment for local communities in a totally different way than in Atlantic City. Casino companies should commit to long-term community investment in partnership with local economic development organizations and with local businesses to generate economic activity outside the casinos. As a recent NJ.com article claimed, investors are prepared to bring $5 billion dollars into new casinos and “an army of people will be hired to build and run them.” Those people, majority of them people of color, should have a voice at work (a union) and real investment that raises their living standards and create opportunities for their children to get an education achieve their American dream.
- Voting turn out and upcoming statewide elections
Voting turn out in the last two statewide elections has been low, with the 2015 statewide election numbers as low as 20.8% of registered voters. Some argue it is voter apathy and others blame the lack of competitive districts for failing to give voters a real choice. I have written previously in this column about the limited resources being invested in Latino voter mobilization by either political party, and I am certain that investment from Democrats and Republicans will not increase in 2016 given the fact that we are not competitive state for any of the political candidates running for President. Most resources from National political campaigns will go to the purple states where a little investment on ethnic voter contact goes a long way to increasing the chances of success.
However, as we move into the 2017 gubernatorial contest, we should see more interest from all the contenders to make some inroads into the different pockets of ethnic votes in NJ. While Gubernatorial campaign will bring some resources for voter mobilization, such investment is always limited to those voters who are already registered. In order for our community to have a larger voice and influence on the legislative agenda in Trenton, we need to increase the number of Latinos registered to vote. Hence we must fight for laws that facilitate the process of voting and increases the number of voters in our urban sectors.
To that end, the Latino community should support the voting reform promoted by the Working Families Alliance and recently vetoed by Governor Christie. The Democracy Act includes automatic voter registration, on-line registration and early voting, printing of ballots in different languages and restoration of voting rights to ex-offenders. There is no clear path right now for approval of these reforms but we should continue to push for them. Increasing the number of registered voters doesn’t automatically turn into more voter participation, but it has the potential of making political parties spend more efforts on voter contact, and make local political machines and politicians pay attention to the needs of our community.
- Puerto Rico’s Financial Crisis
Puerto Rico is facing a financial crisis that is pushing thousands of Puerto Ricans out of their island in search of opportunity in the USA. Many of them are fleeing to places like Orlando, but they are also coming to traditional Puerto Rican enclaves like New York City and New Jersey. The current migration crisis is being compared to the “Great Migration” of the 1930’s and 40’s when ten of thousands of Puerto Ricans arrived to NY and the North East. It is estimated that between 2000-2013, more than 1.5 million people have left the island and move to the United States. Congress has so far failed to come up with a solution to help Puerto Rico manage its debt and without a reasonable solution the economic turmoil will continue to push people out. As Latinos, we should continue to press the United States Congress to allow the Puerto Rican government the opportunity to re-negotiate their debt so that they can begin a process of financial stabilization. Without that assistance, our beloved island will continue to suffer and its citizens will continue to flee to the mainland. Once they arrive, they will need our assistance with jobs, education and community integration.
The crisis in the island was designed by the same forces on Wall Street that engineered the economic collapse of the housing market in the US. As such, Congress must stop blaming Puerto Rico alone and demand that Wall Street accepts responsibility for the crisis they created by funneling money to Puerto Rico at high interest rates betting on the island’s future inability to pay. Blaming the people of Puerto Rico for the excesses of Wall Street is not acceptable. At the same time that Congress demands austerity from the Puerto Rican government, it must also demand Wall Street takes responsibility for their gamble, accept their losses and let Puerto Rico reduce its debt by renegotiating responsibly. After all, isn’t that what market capitalism is all about? Or do taxpayers once again must mail out Wall Street millionaires? It is time for Congress to stop protecting millionaires and look out for the citizens of Puerto Rico, who are after all American citizens.
The stakes for our community on all fronts are very high in 2016. As we prepare to elect a new President and a new Governor, let’s fight at the local level for political relevance but let’s also be bold in our demands from our legislators for laws that both create opportunities for Puerto Ricans who are American citizens and for Central American undocumented children who need our embrace and protection. Our numbers are growing and with that our voices advocating for our issues on the halls of Trenton and in the US Congress should also grow.
Let’s be bold in 2016 and let’s be united in demanding real solutions. Only together we can get it done.
Patricia Campos-Medina is a Labor Leader, Latino community activist, and a former Commissioner of the Casino Redevelopment Authority (CRDA). She has served as Political and Legislative Director for unions such as SEIU International Union, UNITEHERE, Workers United, SEIU, and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), AFL-CIO. She is currently a PhD candidate at Rutgers-Newark and the Co-Director of the Union Leadership Institute at the Worker Institute, Cornell University. Opinions expressed on this column are strictly her own.