In Arkansas politics and media, illegal immigration and the state’s growing Latino population are provoking intense debates.
The recent legislative session illustrated two ends of the ideological spectrum. One side wanted to enlist the State Police in enforcing immigration laws and prevent immigrants from accessing state services. Other lawmakers tried to extend public college scholarship eligibility to the children of undocumented residents.
Despite these actions and the heated rhetoric, most Arkansas Latinos are oblivious to the tension they are causing.
“One word they use a lot is ‘tranquilo,’ which means ‘tranquil,’ ” explains Carlos Cervantes. “The reason that they enjoy Arkansas is that they enjoy the small towns. They just feel real comfortable here.”
Cervantes is the owner of a recycling and technical equipment business who recently was elected Arkansas state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). He will take office next week, when LULAC holds its national convention in Little Rock.
That LULAC is bringing its most important annual gathering to Arkansas is an indication both of Latinos’ rising importance here and the attention that has attracted nationwide.
Arkansas has the second-fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country, which puts it on the crest of the next wave of Latino migration that is following initial settlement in Texas, California, and other states. As a result, the Mexican government has closed its consulate in New Orleans and is opening one in Little Rock.
“Little Rock is the border between Mexico and the U.S.,” said the Rev. Julio Barquero, who operates the Centro Cristiano Fellowship in Sherwood, and is the LULAC state chaplain. “Not Texas anymore — Arkansas. Texas has been conquered by Hispanics.”
Barquero explained that Latinos in Texas have networks and institutions to help them navigate in society, whereas the Latino population in Arkansas is struggling because it is so new.
But his unfortunate choice of words, which might seem to confirm fears about illegal immigration, at least demonstrates the work that needs to be done to build effective Latino advocacy here.
Ana Lorena Hart became one of the primary lobbyists on Latino issues at the legislature this year almost by default. The multicultural community relations manager at the Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale (she emphasizes that her political activity is separate from her professional work), Hart was pushed into service in the absence of any organization prepared to undertake Latino political action.
“There were a series of bills brought up to address the immigrant population,” Hart said. “Besides an effort a couple of years ago with drivers licenses, we had not had that in our state. The leaders of the Hispanic community were not ready for it. While we do have groups, leadership, everyone was caught off guard. We didn’t expect this from our legislators.”
Hart specifically cites two bills that required organized opposition and led to her involvement: HB 1012, which passed both houses and was signed into law, authorizing the State Police to enforce federal immigration laws, and SB 206, which never got out of committee but would have prevented the state from extending public benefits to illegal immigrants.
“Politicians utilizing negative energy to favor themselves at the polls is despicable,” Hart said. “They are feeding a negative energy for our state. They are also manipulating people in their ignorance. That is very sad but it is very real.”
Nevertheless, there were a couple of positive developments for Latinos during the session. HB 1525, which would have allowed the children of undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, passed the House and just missed a vote in the Senate before adjournment. Another piece of legislation clarified the definition of notary public, a title that was being used to exploit Latino immigrants who come from societies where a notario publico is a far more exalted public office.
But that was the extent of what could be achieved in the heated political climate.
“Those legislators who did what they thought was right received a series of hate emails — one even received a death threat — for supporting an issue that was perceived to be in favor of immigrants,” Hart said.
Complicating matters for Latino leaders is that matters of public policy are understandably abstract to an immigrant population that is focused on more elemental concerns. Most Latinos are more concerned with basic needs, like jobs, education and health care, and they are wary of political involvement.
“Latinos in general are very leery of government and government institutions,” said Cesar Compadre, a professor at the UAMS colleges of pharmacy and public health. “You learn to mistrust government when you live in Latin America, and when you come here, you have the same feeling.”
In response, Compadre founded La Casa, a non-profit organization that, in Compadre’s words, “serves as a bridge between Latinos and Arkansas institutions that want to interact with Latinos.” It helps Latinos with everything from simple orientation services, such as getting their electricity connected, to more complicated situations, such as how to obtain a kidney transplant.
La Casa is in Southwest Little Rock, where most of the city’s Latino population is concentrated. The area is a collection of poorer neighborhoods, reflecting the low-income status of its inhabitants, most of whom immigrated from Mexico. Forty to 49 percent of all immigrants in Arkansas are undocumented, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Latinos in Arkansas also are younger and more likely to be male than the average citizen. They are largely lacking a high school education.
Disadvantaged in these ways, the Latino community needs as much help as it can get, argues Eddie Ochoa, who helped Compadre start La Casa.
“There was a need for an organization with roots in the community that would be there when people needed it,” said Ochoa, who is a UAMS faculty member and pediatrician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He compares Arkansas to his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where there is a well-funded infrastructure to support Latino immigrants.
Other groups have emerged to fill the gaps, especially in Northwest Arkansas, which experienced the first Latino growth spurt in the 1990s, mainly due to an increase in the number of low-wage jobs available in the poultry industry. As a result, the Latinos there are more settled and integrated into the community.
There may be no better example of this than Nohemi Lopez, who is the small business coordinator for the Rogers/Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. Like most chambers of commerce, the Rogers/Lowell branch is a conservative affiliation of business owners, but it has enlisted Lopez to coordinate activities to help Latinos, including an annual homeownership fair that provides families with information in Spanish about how to buy or refinance a house, and a fiesta de negocios, which is a business-after-hours party to help Latinos network.
“The whole idea behind that is to bring together Spanish-speaking business professionals as well as English-speaking ones to bridge that gap, and help each group reach out to each other,” Lopez said.
Another group in Northwest Arkansas, the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas, has been distributing scholarship funds to Latino students and sponsoring cultural activities since 1999. Now it is working closely with LULAC to create a statewide network of support for Latinos.
“A lot of growth happened here very quickly,” said Diana Gonzalez-Worthen, HWOA’s president. “But a change in demographics gives you changing needs of your society, and now we are starting to see more formal organizations in DeQueen, Jonesboro, Little Rock, and we are collaborating more with them.”
Religious organizations are also providing services. The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, for instance, has a free bilingual medical clinic and offers help with the immigration process.
Sheila Gomez, who handles Latino outreach for the Catholic Diocese, says that most people are misinformed about the realities of life as an undocumented immigrant.
“When you hear illegal immigrants are accessing all sorts of public benefits, that’s just not true,” Gomez said. “Under law, people who are undocumented can only receive WIC [women, infants, and children] benefits — and that’s only because a child will be citizen when it’s born — and emergency care. People can only receive public benefits after working 40 qualifying periods, which is 10 years in a legal status.”
She also said “there are a lot of people paying into the system who can’t access the system,” because while taxes are deducted from the paychecks of undocumented workers, they are ineligible for the services those taxes fund.
Barquero, who runs the Sherwood church, started a program that issues identification cards to undocumented Latinos in conjunction with the Sherwood Police Department.
“With the IDs issued at the church, miracles have happened,” Barquero said. He says the cards enable Latinos to purchase cars, obtain insurance, and even eventually qualify for state drivers licenses. Church officials will issue a card to anyone who can produce a birth certificate or other form of identification from his or her native country, and Barquero says they have distributed 4,500 IDs, all of which bear the seal of the Sherwood Police Department.
The Mosaic Church of Little Rock, a self-described multi-ethnic, economically diverse church, also does grass-roots work in the Latino community, including a food bank and clothes closet.
Elisabeth Ortega, a Mosaic member originally from Honduras, says that the Latinos she assists face numerous hardships, starting with the fact that most don’t know how to speak English.
“They don’t have drivers licenses because they are undocumented,” Ortega said. “Their kids can’t go to college because they don’t have Social Security numbers and can’t get loans. Even with medical care, it is amazing how far behind Little Rock is in providing translators. I had to take a person to the doctor and translate for them.”
She said the goal of Mosaic is to integrate the Latinos with the greater community by providing a place for them to feel comfortable and accepted. But she said there are not enough institutions providing assistance to “the hardworking people who come for jobs, and who pay Social Security, pay taxes.”
For all the obstacles, the Latino population in Arkansas is maturing quickly and adapting to the social and political environment. They continue to expand into new areas of the state, where they are willing to take the lowest-paying jobs. But already in places like Little Rock, they are moving up the income scale, becoming business owners and managers.
As Latinos improve their economic position, they will inevitably demand more influence in the political system and create more effective organizations to achieve their goals.
“I’ve been here a little over nine years, constantly in contact with the parents of the patients I take care of,” Ochoa said. “The parents have small families, have small businesses. They have become an integral part of the community. They have succeeded in the community, and they should turn to increasing the civic engagement of the community.”
He continued, “School board, city board. We need to have more representation not just in politics, but society in general. In order for Latino issues to be recognized as such, different organizations, people need to be involved.”
Compadre thinks LULAC can help provide the structure and training for the kind of civic involvement Ochoa is advocating. Founded in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, LULAC is the approximate equivalent of the NAACP for Latinos, and it has 115,000 members nationwide.
“LULAC is very much designed to teach people how to get organized,” said Compadre, who led the organization in Arkansas from 1998-2001. “Through LULAC you form chapters, have meetings and elections. It is very important to have newcomers understand how American society works in that sense.”
Cervantes, the newly elected LULAC state director, says one of his priorities will be “to get all of the councils in Arkansas working together.”
“Maybe we will set up some new chapters,” he continued. “Concentrate on other parts of the state that don’t have any – DeQueen, for example. Enlarge the participation by setting up new chapters.”
Hart says that their political advocacy efforts will be helped by the recent formation of a legislative task force to discuss policies affecting the Latino community.
“Before we pick what the agenda may be, we need to understand what the state needs when it comes to Hispanic issues,” Hart said. “Because lot of dialogue needs to take place in order to craft good legislation for everyone in Arkansas.”
Barquero offers his own ideas for what the state can do to help Latinos in Arkansas. He says that it is too difficult for immigrants — whether documented or undocumented — to establish the credit history necessary to obtain loans or credit cards. He believes that state grants intended to help Latinos “don’t reach the people” because they are spent on administrative costs like salaries. He also would like the Little Rock mayor’s office to have a bilingual liaison, because he says Latinos are afraid to report crime for fear of being misunderstood and somehow arrested themselves. And he believes the health department and other public agencies do not provide enough information in a bilingual format.
“I’ve never met a Latino who didn’t want to learn to speak English,” he said. “But in order to have reach into the community, there has to be some thought behind policies, rules and regulations.” He cites the law requiring school districts to include students’ body mass indexes on their report cards. “Hispanic boys are most at risk for being overweight, but when data is delivered in English to their heavily Spanish-speaking parents, they have no earthly idea of what they’ve gotten. So the message is lost for the first year of data.”
Similarly, Hart said that the education system also suffers from resistance to allowing bilingual teaching.
“Our teachers cannot use bilingual materials to further advance students who have limited English profiency,” she said. “I’m not saying I would like the state to say Spanish is an official language. I’m saying that we shouldn’t limit the resources our teachers have to advance the students at a faster pace.”
Nevertheless, Compadre is hopeful about the future for Latinos in Arkansas.
“The immigration system in the U.S. is not working, and it is causing troubles for immigrants and to society,” he said. “But there are many historic examples of things not working and people change it. One hundred years ago females couldn’t vote. In the 50s and ’60s, people of color could not eat in the same restaurants as whites. . . . What we believe is that [undocumented immigrants] are not criminals. Not having documents is a civil offense, not criminal. These people are helping us to build our society. Under the immigration laws we have, these people are suffering. We have to help them become good American citizens.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included among the suggestions of the Rev. Julio Barquero his recommendation that the state attorney general’s office hire a bilingual staff member to help immigrants who are victims of fraud and abuse.
Attorney General Mike Beebe already employs such a person. Her name is Marie Peters, and her direct line is 683-3130.