Summit underscores needs and challenges of Latino children

Posted on October 21, 2012
By Griselda Nevarez

With Latinos making up a quarter of the nation’s public school students, hundreds of advocates, experts and elected officials convened over the weekend in Arizona to highlight social and economic issues Latino children are facing.

Much of what they discussed during the two-day National Latino Children’s Summit focused on finding solutions to those issues, which they stressed urgently need attention.

“Our mission is to focus the nation’s attention on Latino children’s accomplishments as well as their unique challenges,” Maria Rita Jaramillo, a long-time advocate of Latino children, told VOXXI. She is also the board chair of the National Latino Children’s Institute, the lead group that organized the summit held at the University of Arizona’s Phoenix campus from Oct. 19-20.

Rita said one of the biggest challenges Latino children living in the United States are facing is poverty. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were 6.1 million Latino children living in poverty in 2010. That’s more than any other racial or ethnic group.

Latino children affected by immigration laws

Another challenge she pointed to is the psychological burdens, such as anxiety, that Latino children living in mixed-status families go through. She said this is especially apparent in Arizona where many children live with the fear that their parents might be arrested, detained or deported.

Nationally, there are 5.5 million children in the U.S. who have at least one parent who is undocumented and 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens, according to a report released November 2011 by the Applied Research Center.

Rita said her group decided to hold the summit in Arizona to address some of the immigration laws impacting Latino children the state has passed in recent years. One of the laws she pointed to is SB 1070, which requires police officers to question a person’s immigration status if they suspect the person is not authorized to be in the country.

“We’re very familiar with the punitive and frankly damaging legislations that have been proposed in the state of Arizona,” she told VOXXI. “We found that rather than running from them we needed to run to them for the simple reason that we stand for children”

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), agreed that Arizona is the appropriate state to host the summit given that it is the “epicenter” of several immigration laws that affect Latino children. He also pointed to the state’s ban on ethnic studies classes.

“These classes proved to be helpful in getting Latino students to graduate from high school and go on to college,” Saenz told VOXXI.

Latino youth are leading the way

However, Saenz said he is optimistic Arizona politics will change to favor Latinos, just like it occurred in California after Latinos mobilized against and defeated Proposition 187, a tough immigration law proposed in 1994.

Much of his optimism comes from the activism he sees among Latino youth who have mixed status families.

“They are stepping up and recognizing that as U.S. citizens, they have an opportunity to speak for their families and defend them,” he said.

His optimism also stems from the leadership he sees in undocumented youth. He describes dreamers as a group of people who can’t vote yet were able to persuade President Barack Obama to put in place a program that defers their deportation and grants them work permits.

“This is the most vibrant youth movement that we’ve seen in this country in 40 years,” Saenz said of dreamers.

One of the dreamers who attended the summit was Paola Carrasco, a 17-year-old high school senior. She was among the 50 high school and college age Latinos who participated in the youth leadership and advocacy training that took place during the summit.

During a town hall on Saturday, she and the other students shared with U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and several Latino elected officials some of the issues important to them. Among the issues they listed include education, immigration and healthcare.

For Carrasco, who is getting ready to graduate from high school and attend college, the most important issue is affording a college education.

A state law in Arizona forbids her from paying in-state tuition and bans her from receiving state and federal financial aid because of her undocumented status. That means she will have to pay $20,000 a year to attend one of the three public universities in Arizona.

“My dad is a painter and my mom is a hair stylist. They don’t have that kind of money to pay for my education,” she told VOXXI.

Education is key for Latinos

During the town hall, Grijalva agreed with the students that education is an important issue. He told the students he sees a “disinvestment” in the education of Latino students in Arizona.

He pointed out that recent state budget cuts eliminated programs, such as full-day kindergarten, that benefited Latino students. He also noted that Arizona ranks 49th in spending per pupil out of 50 the states.

“This is the time to invest in our population,” he said at the town hall. “This is not a time for budgetary marginalizing of a whole group of people.”

Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, also agreed that education is a top issue.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of 18- to 24-year old Latinos enrolled in college in 2011 exceeded 2 million for the first time, reaching a record 16.5 percent share of all college enrollments.

Though Brown indicated that these are good news, she said Latinos are still struggling to attend college. She said one of the biggest challenges they face is finding ways to pay for tuition.

Oftentimes, the cost of a college education is more than what a Hispanic family makes,” she told VOXXI.

Another obstacle she pointed to is being the first in the family to seek a college education and not knowing the steps needed to attend college.

“There’s not the kind of easy access to adults in their community who they can ask, ‘how did you do it, and how do I do it?’” she said. “That means that these young people have to find, either in the school building or through community-based organizations, someone who can demystify that process.”

Brown also said college and university officials can do more to recruit more Latino students, staring with engaging the parents. She said school officials need to remember that while most Latino students are English dominant, their parents may not be.

“If the colleges and universities want to engage this community, they need to spend extra resources to translate something in Spanish or have a college recruiter who can go home and talk to mamá y papá and persuade the children to go to college,” she told VOXXI.

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The National Latino Children’s Institute (NLCI) was founded in 1997 as a national nonprofit organization and is the only national Latino organization whose primary focus is Latino children. NLCI’s mission focuses the nation’s attention on the contributions and challenges of young Latinos by advocating for their success and well being through partnerships and programs.

eLatinaVoices, formed on September 30, 2010, is the largest online community of active Latinas in Arizona. The member organization is committed to advocating for and taking collective action on issues that impact the well-being of children, families and the Latino community. eLatinaVoices facilitates civic engagement and is focused on connecting active members to share ideas, work with elected officials and use their influential, collective voices to create change and improve lives of young Latinos and women. Visit for more information.



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