07/29/2010 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Latinos Are Underrepresented on Capitol Hill

In February, a report issued by the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA) discovered that among Congressional staff on Capitol Hill, "Latinos are almost completely left out of key staff positions and are drastically underrepresented at all staff levels." Further, the CHSA report concludes that Latinos "are not only being denied a seat at the table, Latinos are not even in the same room where important policy decisions are made."

According to the report, "There is a lack of comprehensive data to assess diversity on the Hill. While Congress requires this data from federal agencies and government contractors, Congressional offices are not required to collect such data." Thus the CHSA constructed a more-piecemeal approach to examining the "Diversity Crisis" on Capitol Hill, relying in part on a review of The Roll Call Fabulous 50 -- a list compiled, in essence, of the most-skilled and most-influential congressional staffers on Capitol Hill -- as well as on a demographic analysis conducted by the National Journal of Congress between 2003 and 2007.

The Roll Call list "was released on January 25, 2010, and had not one Latino. One has to go back to 2008 before finding a Latino listed." The National Journal research showed that, by 2007, among:

...key aides of Members, committees, caucuses, leadership, and other coalitions... there were only three Latinos listed, and one of those was the executive director of the [CHSA] -- a position one would reasonably expect a Latino to hold. Further, there was absolutely no gain in the representation by Latinos over the four-year period, rather Latinos actually lost ground.

Losing ground has defined the Latino American experience in 2010. And so at this point, the easiest argument to make involves invoking the ugly white face of ethnic discrimination, perhaps by highlighting a proud redneck Republican or reminding the reader of a Democrat's remark about "negro" accents. Then we Latino Americans may fancy ourselves victims of majoritarian injustice, prejudice, bigotry in hiring.

From this premise we can construct an apocalypse of conclusions, about the infuriating delay of a comprehensive immigration reform bill and the patently unconstitutional mangling of our inalienable American rights by a renegade Sun Devil governor with bleached blonde hair and cold Caucasian blue eyes. Bigotry is delicious in the American political circus, especially in a midterm election season increasingly defined by dangerously uncomplicated partisan noise.

However, evidence suggests that the fault may be elsewhere. Several top-level Hill staffers with whom I've discussed the CHSA report have indicated that the Latino hiring deficit stems from a lack of qualified Latinos in the applicant pool. That said, research published by the Pew Hispanic Center may lend credence to their assertion.

Since 2009, the organization has found rates of Latino education attainment in the United States are abysmal. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that "41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma." The same organization published a report last October noting that while 89% of Latinos surveyed between the ages of 16 and 25 say that "education is important to success in life," only 48% say that they themselves plan to get a college degree. Combine these data with the estimated 65,000 bright, young American DREAMers who get stiff-armed every year in the college admissions process and a diluted applicant pool for qualified congressional staffers becomes increasingly plausible. After all, a bachelor's degree is required of a qualified applicant for even the most entry-level staffer job on the Hill. Top-level staffer jobs tend to require advanced degrees or certifications, often in concentrated fields of study, and for good reason. Our nation's highest lawmaking body is an extraordinarily complex procedural labyrinth. Its successful navigation often hinges on the cohesive administration of a team of specialized political professionals. With trillions of taxpayer dollars on the table every year, affirmative action in Hill staffer jobs would seem irresponsible. Indeed, the potential consequences of a lawmaker's hiring decisions are such that it seems reasonable to expect professional qualifications to supersede all other considerations.

That said, the causes of the Latino hiring deficit in congressional offices on Capitol Hill remain as illusive as its consequences. But make no mistake, Latinos are not at the table where important policy decisions are being made on Capitol Hill; and important policy decisions are finally beginning to be made on Capitol Hill regarding a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will be disproportionately consequential to Latino futures in the United States. Latinos are not the first American minority group to be outsiders in the legislative construction of their own American fate. Decades ago, a Capital culture of white men drafted and passed a Civil Rights Act in a highly contentious political climate. As always, context is key; but it should be obvious to even the most-casual observer of American politics that the immigration reform debate is heating up. Thus as our comprehensive immigration reform bill takes shape, it seems prudent that Latinos, operating as outsiders, borrow from the autobiographical wisdom of Malcolm X, who recalls learning very young that in America, "if you want something, you had better make some noise."
Photo by Pablo Manriquez