Pew study on Latino youth: Between Two Worlds

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The Pew Hispanic Center released a study on Latino youth that reflects the transitional situation of the country’s largest minority: Between Two Worlds . Their story in many ways parallels that of youth in previous generations of immigrant youth. The second and third generations generally fare better than youth born outside the country. But the second generation is often caught in an identity crisis which seems to be behind the third. That  happened with the Irish and Italians that preceded them. And there lies the future of the future of the Hispanic community.

Most growth in the Hispanic community – the report uses “Latino” and “Hispanic” interchangeably – is among children born in the U.S. Immigration is still strong, so that between native-born and immigrant children they number one in five children in the U.S. One in four new births is of a Hispanic mother. The white majority in this country will have turned into a minority long before 2050. So how Latino youth assimilate – a loaded word among many Hispanic scholars and activists – will determine what this nation becomes.

The Pew Report, however, does not limit itself to the demographics, but surveys also attitudes, values, social behavior, family, economic well-being, education, and work. The conclusions seem to match up well to my own impressions from living and working in Hispanic neighborhoods and parishes most of my priesthood.

Some of Pew’s findings:
•    Most Latino youth are not immigrants, but most are children of the immigration wave since 1965. Hispanics, of course, have been in this country even before there was a United States.
•    Latino youth are generally satisfied and optimistic about their place in U.S. society. That doesn’t mean they are unmindful of the difficulties or that they haven’t suffered from discrimination – religious and racial.
•    Latino youth place high value on education and hard work and think much about their careers. Still they have the highest high-school drop-out rate and often do not finish college. Immigrant youth tend to drop out more than U.S.-born.
•    Latino youth have higher rates of teen-age parenthood and attraction to gangs. As a consequence they have more trouble than whites with the law and a higher incarceration rate. Notwithstanding other advantages the U.S.-born have over the foreign-born, the second generation is more likely to be drawn into gangs. (This is not unlike the Irish experience in the 19th century or the Italian and Polish in the early 20th.)

One issue that the report does not address fully, since the future is so uncertain, is the impact of Mexico and Latin America’s proximity to the United States. Many Mexican youth, even U.S.-born, know something of their parents’ homeland, use ethnicity for self-identification, and know the language. But many are drifting away from the old-country culture and have poor or no facility in Spanish. Again this is not unlike the Irish and Italian experiences. Self-identify comes less to mean real ties to their parents’ homeland, and more a sentimental and prideful self- assertion. Even with a relaxation of immigration law, the migrant flows in the future will probably be reduced. (Demographics is working on Mexico as well.) What immigration continues will be more controlled and more oriented to family unification. While there probably will be some continued migration across the Rio Grande, it will be secondary to the inevitable march of assimilation. As Irish and Italian children were not converted into Anglo-Saxons in a “melting pot”, neither will Latino youth. What they become and how much of their Hispanic heritage they retain is still to come.

Maricopa County attorney and sheriff sharply criticized
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County – Phoenix and vicinity -- glories in being “America’s toughest sheriff”. Of late that reputation is founded on his “criminal sweeps” with his volunteer posse through Hispanic towns and neighborhoods. In these sweeps he had picked up any undocumented immigrants and turned them over to ICE for processing to be deported. He’s turned over hundreds. But his reputation had started with the tough regime he set up in the county jail – housing prisoners in a tent city under the scorching Arizona sun, making them wear chain-gang uniforms and pink underwear, feeding them baloney sandwiches. All of that got Sheriff Joe hauled into federal court. And ICE recently took away his power to act as its street agent. Still the sheriff is popular and unchallenged at the polls.

Now Sheriff Joe and his companion, County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who supports the sheriff’s anti-immigrant and harsh administration, have come under sharp criticism from attorneys, judges, and a neighboring county prosecutor. Sheriff Joe and his lackey prosecutor have conducted  running battles with the county supervisors, judges, and private attorneys upset by their showboating in the press. To silence their critics, the sheriff and his sidekick prosecutor have taken to the courts. The chief judge of the County Circuit is being sued in federal court by Thomas for racketeering --  really for having come to the defense of a fellow judge. So outraged is the local legal establishment that 250 lawyers, including some judges, demonstrated on the courthouse steps in downtown Phoenix. Attorney Thomas easily dismissed the demonstrators, but was shocked by a letter in the Arizona Republic.

Thomas had asked Sheila Polk, the attorney of neighboring Yavaipa County, to take a prosecution of a circuit judge for corruption. She worked on the case for a while and then returned it to Thomas’ office. Like Arpaio and Thomas, Polk is a conservative Republican. Yet as she describes her experience in working with the two, her words are blistering. She admitted Maricopa was not her jurisdiction, but she had to speak up as “totalitarianism . . . [is] spreading before my eyes.” The actions of Arpaio and Thomas are “a disservice to the hundreds of dedicated men and women who work in their offices and are a threat to the entire criminal justice system.” On Arpaio, she admits to being “happy to remove cases and contacts with [him}. My discomfort grew daily and my role in restraining potential abuses of power increasingly more difficult.” She does not state the kinds of “abuses” she is referring to, though people know enough of Sheriff Joe to surmise. (See Arizona Republic article.)