Latino congress could convene in Los Angeles
Invitations going out to discuss immigrant rights, health care
By Rachel Uranga and Maria Hsin, Staff Writers

Inspired by the millions of immigrants who took to the streets to demand legal residency, Latino advocacy groups and politicians have called for a national Latino congress to keep the issue in the political spotlight.
Organizers are inviting leaders from across the political spectrum to Los Angeles -- the country's Latino epicenter -- to draft an agenda to strengthen immigrant rights, health care and education.

"These mobilizations have shown that the immigrant community and the Latino community have political potential in impacting public policy,'' said Angela Sanbrano, president of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities.

"But we cannot assume that we are unified.''

In fact, a number of groups favoring tighter controls on illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America count Latino residents among their members.

Joe Turner, founder of Save Our State, a group that has been picketing against undocumented workers at day labor sites in Glendale and around the region, said measures such as the Latino congress help to strengthen groups like his.

"Any call for amnesty this (Congress) supports is only going to create a backlash,'' he said.

Hosted by more than half a dozen immigrant rights advocacy groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the four-day conference from Sept. 6-10 will set a long-term "Latino agenda'' and action plan to improve the lives of immigrants.

Jose Calderon, president of the Latino and Latina Roundtable of San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Valley, said creating a Latino agenda and long-term plan is significant.

"In the short term, we can't continue to hold marches and protests and put forward what policies we are against,'' said Calderon, the Weglyn Chair at Cal Poly Pomona and professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont.

"We need to develop policies of what we are for and be clear and (address) how we are going to make those policies a reality.

"That will take a long-term effort of voter registration, getting people out to vote, training local leaders and new candidates, and not just around immigration, but the environment, education, health care, human rights and housing. That's going to take some time. It's not a one-month or six-month effort.''

But observers say organizers need to be careful not to further divide Americans on the red-hot issue of immigration.

"While you want to mobilize, you don't want to create a counter-mobilization, and that is very difficult not to do,'' said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Still, he called the congress, modeled after similar ethnic and civil rights conventions held during the 1970s, a turning point in Latino politics.

"Latinos have done a tremendous job in electoral politics, but I think you are in 2006 seeing a watershed moment for nonelectoral political organizing in the United States,'' Guerra said.

Calderon said backlash against a particular group for organizing is historical and nothing new.

"Every time a group begins to organize and look at what affects them, it is seen as negative and exclusive,'' he said.

"It's OK to organize in the community, but the question is what are we working on in the long term. (It's important to) show we are building coalitions with other groups and finding common ground. That's the only way to respond to those attacks.''

Next month, Calderon's group plans to meet with white members of a Presbyterian church who employ Latino gardeners and housekeepers. He says it is about reaching out, especially to people who know immigrants on a personal level and who may not have had a way to express their support or views.

"A Latino agenda doesn't contradict that,'' Calderon said. "You start off with a particular, then work toward a broader agenda that is inclusive.''

Organizers of the Latino congress are inviting elected Latino officials -- now about 5,000 -- from government, chambers of commerce as well as from the National Council of La Raza, perhaps the largest Latino civil rights organization in the United States.

Its success and impact will depend, in part, on who turns up. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been invited, but his office did not return calls to say whether he planned to attend.

Organizers aim to have the country's largest gathering of Latino power assembled.

"We are inviting the whole family,'' joked Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit Latino voter research group based in San Antonio, Texas.

"(Latinos) control cities, we have people in the Senate, and we are going to only get more prominent. But on the other hand, (Latinos) are not giving the policy benefits to the community we should.''

Latinos have achieved political clout in Los Angeles, but they have less access to health care and are poorer than the general population, studies show. Nearly half of Latino students drop out of high school.

For Gilda Ochoa, professor of sociology and Chicana and Chicano studies at Cal Poly Pomona, what happens in the Latino community is not only important for Latinos.

"Latino interests are the interests of many working-class communities of color (as well as) working-class whites,'' Ochoa said.

Ochoa also believes the debate should broaden.

"Put immigration into a larger historical context,'' she said. "There have been different waves of anti-immigrant sentiment -- anti-Italian, the literacy policy against the Chinese, anti-Japanese sentiment ... we need to create coalitions, and include Middle Easterners, especially in a post-9/11 climate. We need to see the commonalities we have. It's not about blaming.''