The Latino State of the Union -- A Challenge to Lawmakers

01/27/2011 10:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's State of the Union address was a direct challenge to lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle to work together toward a more prosperous and globally competitive America. The president called for investments in innovation, education, and infrastructure to jump-start economic growth. He also pledged to get the nation's fiscal house in order and reshape federal government in ways that make it leaner and more efficient. His speech touched on many subjects and policy issues of great concern to all Americans and especially the nation's Hispanics.


The president rightfully acknowledged the contributions of immigrants historically in making America strong and competitive globally. In addition, he recognized that restoring America's leading role in the world also means keeping talented and skilled immigrant students in the country, therefore contributing to our nation's prosperity. Not only did he mention the importance of the "DREAM Act," he reaffirmed his commitment to immigration reform.

The president is right. Enacting immigration reform will be hard and it will take more than his words to move the policy debate forward. We know that fixing our country's broken immigration system would generate needed economic growth, create jobs, and increase tax contributions by ensuring that everyone working in the United States is doing so legally. In fact, immigration reform would allow us to take full advantage of the opportunities for economic growth that immigrants bring.

Comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization plan for the unauthorized would contribute a cumulative $1.5 trillion to GDP over ten years as more tax revenues are collected, wages increase for U.S.-born and legalized workers, and immigrant workers spend more in our economy.

The solution to our broken immigration system must include restoring the rule of law by requiring the nearly 11 million undocumented people in our country to come forward, obtain legal status, and learn English. It must create smart enforcement policies that uphold national security and the Constitution, and it must reform the legal immigration system so that families are reunited in a timely manner and future workers can enter in an orderly way, with rights and protections that safeguard our workforce.


Without mentioning the word "unemployment," the president focused on the future of the American economy, calling on the nation to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." As the fastest-growing segment of the workforce -- and among the hardest hit by the recession -- Latinos are critical to our economic recovery in the short term and our global competitiveness in the long term. That's why it is imperative that Latinos fully participate in economic ecosystems that generate new ideas and bring them to fruition.

We can make this a reality by building on what is working. Despite the jobs crisis, there are places and industries where employment is growing. For example, employment in elementary and secondary schools in Texas' Concho Valley, where more than one-third of the population is Latino, grew by 36% during the lowest point in the recession. The federal government can match private business investments with public dollars to help sustain existing economic development plans that show promise.

We must also strive to better prepare today's workers to meet the demands of American businesses. Our workforce development system provides a range of services for adults who want to upgrade their skills: job readiness and employment services, occupational skills training and vocational postsecondary education. Investing in programs that help low-skill and limited-English-proficient working adults prepare for new and better jobs should be part and parcel of a strategy for moving the entire economy forward.

Social Security

The president said that we should find a bipartisan solution to strengthening Social Security for future generations and spelled out some important conditions for doing so, such as protecting the vulnerable and disabled. For the Hispanic community, the benefits of Social Security are critical, as they help keep the majority of Latino seniors out of poverty. Hispanic seniors are more likely than non-Hispanic seniors to rely on Social Security as their sole source of income. While Social Security has powerful antipoverty effects, it can still be improved. Social Security benefits for very low-income workers can leave retirees below the poverty line. For example, the average benefit for Hispanic women was $9,536 in 2008, which was below the official poverty line of $10,326. In addition, Latino seniors are less likely to qualify for Social Security benefits. Lastly, older Latino adults are more likely to report poor health, work in a physically demanding job, and apply for disability benefits than older White adults.

Any proposals to strengthen the Social Security system should maintain what works well, and it should improve the adequacy of benefits for low-income workers as well as access to the program for workers who are currently left out. We believe that low- and moderate-income people should be protected from benefit cuts.


President Obama is right. We must address our nation's ballooning deficit in a way that allows us to be competitive over the long term. His focus on increasing investment in education to innovate our country out of the recession and deficit is in the best interest of children, particularly Latino children.

Latino children account for 22% of all children in the United States under the age of 18 and 26% of children under the age of five. Twenty-two percent of our nation's public school students are Latino. In order for our country to be competitive, it is imperative that education works for Hispanic students, who will be a vital part of our future workforce.

To ensure that Latino children have the opportunity to succeed in an increasingly global economy, we must improve access to high-quality early childhood education services and ensure that high academic standards are the norm for all Latino students, including English language learners.


The president said that America can't afford to go back our old health care system. We agree. That system was bad for Latinos, who had few options for affordable coverage and were increasingly burdened by escalating health care costs. Health care reform has the potential to provide access to health insurance and care for millions of Latinos. It is not perfect, but we should improve on it, not repeal it.

As President Obama noted, balancing the budget cannot be done "on the back of our most vulnerable citizens." We should invest in programs that help reign in the costs of health care while promoting the good health of our citizenry. It is both smart and critically important that we fully fund initiatives that remove the pervasive inequality within our health care system.