Immigration Issues Shape the Experience of U.S. Latinos  

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Bob Doughty.  About one out of seven people in the United States is Hispanic, or of Spanish-speaking ancestry.  This week, we present the second part of our report about Hispanic life in America.


We start in California.  This Friday, Antonio Villaraigosa [vee-yah-ry-GOH-sah] will begin his duties as mayor of Los Angeles.  Around half the four million people in the city are Latino, mostly of Mexican ancestry.  Yet the place that Spanish settlers named "City of the Angels" has not had a Latino mayor since eighteen seventy-two.

Mr. Villaraigosa is from Los Angeles.  He was born Antonio Villar.  When he married his wife, Corina Raigosa, he made his name Villaraigosa.

He grew up poor.   His father, a Mexican immigrant, left the family.  In high school, young Antonio suffered a growth on his spine and lost some of his ability to move.  But he recovered after an operation.

The future mayor once had a tattoo on his arm that read "Born to Raise Hell."  He was expelled from one high school and left another.

But he completed his schooling.  He went to college, then law school.  Mr. Villaraigosa became a labor lawyer and a state legislator.  He served as speaker of the California Assembly from nineteen ninety-eight to two thousand.

Now, Mr. Villaraigosa will lead the second largest city in America.  He won with strong support, and says he wants to be mayor of all the people.

The mayor in Los Angeles has limited powers, though.  And many problems await the new mayor.  These include troubled schools and racial and ethnic tensions.  L.A. is famous not just for Hollywood, but also for its traffic.  And there are the violent gangs of young people, mainly Latino or black.

Mr. Villaraigosa has done a lot in his fifty-two years.  Now a lot more is about to be expected of the man seen as one of the new stars in the Democratic Party.

The United States has a growing number of Latino public officials.  Yet many Latinos believe Hollywood and other media often misrepresent the Hispanic population.  They say films and television programs mostly show Latinos as housekeepers, gardeners or gang members.

There has been some improvement, though, as more Latinos enter the public eye through popular culture.

In sports, professional soccer has only a limited following in the United States.  But Latin American players are well known in baseball. In fact, Major League Baseball says they represent almost one-fourth of all the players.  The largest numbers come from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the United States territory of Puerto Rico.

Spanish-language media in the United States are expanding.  So are marketing campaigns aimed at Latinos, both in Spanish and English.



Immigration is a major part of the Latino experience in America.

A research group estimates that more than ten million immigrants were in the United States illegally as of March of two thousand four.  The Pew Hispanic Center says most came from Latin America; more than half came from Mexico.

Traditionally, illegal immigrants went to states like California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois or New Jersey.  Now many are going to other parts of the country.  By two thousand four, almost four million had gone to states other than the six most traditionally popular.

The researchers say illegal immigrants almost always work, and most live with families.  Some family members are citizens, others are not.  Children born in the United States become American citizens by birth.  The researchers estimate that parents who came here illegally have about three million children with American citizenship.

For some illegal immigrants, trying to reach the United States can be deadly.  Many Cubans and Haitians have drowned attempting to reach Florida.  Part of the border area between Mexico and the state of Arizona is also an especially dangerous crossing.  Some illegal immigrants die in the heat of the desert; others die in the cold of the mountains.


Border Patrol officials call the period of hot weather between May and late September "the season of death."

Criminals known as "coyotes" [koh-YOH-tehs] also play a part.  Immigrants pay these people to help them enter the United States illegally.  In two thousand three, the Border Patrol found the bodies of nineteen people in Victoria, Texas.  A "coyote" had left them trapped without water or enough air in the back of a truck.

Some illegal immigrants who are caught by the Border Patrol try again and again.

In April, a civilian group offered to help guard the border area between Arizona and Mexico.  The civilians carried weapons and reported sightings to the Border Patrol.  At that time, the group called itself the Minuteman Project.  Now it is known as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

Some in the public denounced the Minutemen as "migrant hunters."  President Bush criticized the group.  But members say they were responsible for the arrests of several hundred people.  They are planning more operations.

Another group, the New Mexico Minutemen, has also been established.  Its members say they do not carry weapons.  They say they provide food, water and medical help to people who are caught.

Some churches and other community groups provide humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants but do not report them.

There are calls for immigration reform.  President Bush has proposed a guest worker plan.  Temporary work permits would let illegal immigrants in the country stay for at least three years without fear of expulsion.  After that, they would have to return home unless they had been approved for the process of citizenship.

Critics say such a plan will only increase illegal immigration.

The terrorist attacks of September eleventh, two thousand one, have increased efforts to strengthen border security.  They have also led to measures such as a new federal law called the REAL ID Act of Two Thousand Five.

Among other things, the law aims to increase security requirements for states to give someone a permit to drive.  That is because Americans commonly use their driver's license for identification.  The new law sets requirements for licenses to be accepted for federal purposes, such as to get on a plane.  If states choose to give a license to an illegal immigrant, they are supposed to mark it with a special design or color.

Opponents protested the legislation as anti-immigrant.


It is illegal to hire undocumented workers.  But some employers depend on them.  They say illegal immigrants are willing to take jobs that Americans do not want.

Work conditions are often dangerous, and jobs usually do not provide a health plan.  In some communities, laborers gather on streets, often near home improvement stores, waiting and hoping to get a day's work.

Many people are sympathetic to the struggles of immigrants in search of a better life.  But communities must also find ways to deal with the costs of education, medical care and other services for the poor.  English language classes for adults are often full.  Cities need more Spanish-speaking teachers, police officers and others.

Immigration has always been an issue of debate in America.  Some say people who enter the country illegally have no right to free services and should be punished for breaking the law.  Others argue that illegal immigrants are more important to the economy than many people recognize.

Traditionally, blacks were the largest minority group in the United States.  Now there are more than forty-one million Latinos, fourteen percent of the population.  Their numbers are growing through high birth rates and immigration.  Latino leaders hope that as the numbers continue to grow, so will the social and political influence of Hispanic America.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson, with additional reporting by Brianna Blake.  Caty Weaver produced both parts of our series.  I'm Bob Doughty.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Our programs can be found on the Internet at  Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.