Immigration Furor Eclipsing Hispanic Achievement

07/07/2010 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The political fury over opposition to Arizona's immigration law surprised most Americans. Polls continue to show the majority see it as the state's attempt to enforce the existing federal law to stem the flow of illegal immigrants over the Mexican border and control violent crime.

The opposition sees it as an assault on race. They've organized protests, economic sanctions and pulled Civil Rights activists to their cause. As long as it stayed in the political arena, it's American democracy in action and sparks a needed debate on immigration reform.

It's a legitimate concern to many that an unintended casualty of this rancorous immigration debate could well be the legacy of Hispanic achievement in the United States.

The majority of Hispanics in this nation are citizens. Many have American family pedigrees older than most of their neighbors. In their ranks are Nobel Prize winners, musicians, writers, astronauts, athletes, artists, actors and actresses. Historical eras of anglicizing names and more than 300 years of intermarriage make it impossible to truly track "Hispanic accomplishment" in the U.S. They have served in virtually every level of government and estimated to presently hold more than 5,000 elected offices in this nation, including seats in the Arizona legislature.

From the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida in the 16th century to World War I, the majority of Spanish speaking people in America were initially regarded as European. To the U.S. government, most Americans and themselves, their designation was "white."

The word "Hispanic" wasn't created until the 1970s by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Grace Flores-Hughes. It derived from Hispana and used to denote Spanish ancestry on federal paperwork. It's not a designation completely in favor among Hispanics. Many still prefer to list their nation of origin instead.

Those of Hispanic origin were influential in the founding of this nation. Hispanics colonists fought in the Revolutionary War receiving land grants for their service. Spanish army officer Bernardo de Galvez supplied rations and arms to the Continental Army utilizing Spain's resources in New Orleans and the Caribbean. He organized a military campaign in 1779 seizing British forts and outposts on the Mississippi River keeping the British from encircling the colonies.

Joseph Marion Hernandez of St. Augustine became the first to serve as a member of Congress in 1822 when Florida became a U.S. territory and later served as a U.S. Army General in the Second Seminole War.

In America's westward expansion, Spanish words became part of the American vocabulary and named six states. Thousands fought alongside Texans in their battle for Independence, six died at the Alamo and three Mexican nationals signed the state's Declaration of Independence. They served the U.S. with distinction in the Mexican War and former Military Commander Mariano Vallejo helped shaped Mexico's northern territory into what became California.

Hispanic contributions as citizen-soldiers are replete in U.S. military history. More than 9,000 served in the Civil War. The highest ranking Confederate was Texas Col. Santos Benavides and the highest ranking Union officer was Tennessee's Admiral David G. Farragut -- the first U.S. citizen to hold the rank. His father Jorge Farragut fought as a sailor in the American Revolution until captured by the British and then served as a foot soldier at the battle of Cowpens, South Carolina following his release. Union servicemen Philip Bazaar, Joseph H. De Castro and John Ortega received Medals of Honor for their actions under fire in the U.S. Civil War.

They were three of 43 Hispanic Americans to have been awarded the Medal of Honor since it was created. Hispanic soldiers and sailors have climbed through the ranks of every branch of military service earning every distinction and medal available.

The only real bump in the road relating to racial discrimination occurred in World War I when Puerto Ricans were given American citizenship. While 700,000 Hispanics of largely Mexican American origin served in both World Wars' combat theaters. Puerto Rican soldiers were placed in segregated units or not called into service after registering for the draft.

The fact is Hispanic influence is felt in every part of American culture and in many instances created it. Their surnames adorn U.S. ships, submarines and cities. They pay taxes, own businesses and vote. A formidable fact when it's remembered Hispanic citizens comprise fifteen percent of the U.S. population. Unchecked illegal immigration on any porous border is an issue where they have as much invested as every other American.