Latinos, who make up 10 percent of the American electorate, played a key role in President Barack Obama's re-election. He received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. Now Obama is focusing on comprehensive immigration reform to address the status of the nation's more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, a quarter of them in California.
How that reform works will have a huge impact on California business and industry, says Alice Dominici Perez, CEO of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
In February, Perez took over as leader of the organization, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It has 588 members, 68 percent of them Hispanic, including Mexicans, Peruvians, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Dominicans and Cubans.
Perez, of Puerto Rican and Italian descent, said she was born in San Francisco's Hunter's Point and raised in the rough Mission District. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. A California State University, Sacramento, graduate, she was vice president and director of U.S. Bank's multicultural banking initiatives.
Now that Latinos are coming of age politically, why do we need a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce?
There's a large percentage of people who think Latinos are here illegally and don't talk about the many successful, homegrown businesses started by legal residents and second- and third-generation Latinos.
Our mission is networking, advocacy for local Hispanic businesses, and education. About 25 percent of our members speak primarily in Spanish. They include plumbers, financial planners, CPAs, attorneys and restaurant workers. We also have members in the construction industry and others in import-export.
How important is language to identity?
There's a large voice in the Latino community that is not heard because it doesn't speak English fluently. My in-laws are from Mexico, and at times they were treated like they weren't as intelligent as those who spoke English comprehensively. People would talk louder to them.
I hear resentment toward those Latinos who don't learn English. When I spoke to banking customers in Oregon, Washington and Utah, many resented us offering bilingual information about checking, savings accounts and loans because they thought we were catering to undocumented customers. It's OK to maintain our language and culture, but the common language in the U.S. is English. We should focus on truly being bilingual. One of the most important things that immigrants can do to combat the stereotypes is learn English.
What is the Latino impact on the region?
Hispanics, now the second-largest ethnic group in the Sacramento area at 26 percent, account for 32 percent of Sacramentans under age 45. Latino buying power in Sacramento is around $20 billion a year, and Hispanic consumer confidence in the nation's economic recovery is higher than non-Latinos'.
Why is immigration reform needed?
The primary purpose people migrate legally or illegally is work. They come here with the three Ds: drive, determination and dedication. We don't issue enough work permits or work visas.
What about those who say illegal immigrants are taking jobs from U.S. citizens?
That's just not true. They're taking the most difficult jobs, jobs nobody else wants. When a local nursery had to lay off undocumented workers, the non-Latino citizen they hired lasted three days.
How could immigration reform work?
Restaurants, farms, hotels, construction companies, meat-packing plants and other businesses relying on immigrant labor would file applications stating the number of workers they need. Seasonal workers who tend to return to their countries in the off season would get work permits. Undocumented immigrants who have been here for 10 years without any legal problems would get to apply for permanent residency.
How do you respond to those who believe legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants will be a burden on American taxpayers?
Many already pay Social Security taxes and don't claim any of their benefits. One requirement for a green card would be if you've been consistently employed or have run your own business for five years. Those people are not going to be a burden to society. They will pay taxes, qualify for loans and buy homes.
The children of these undocumented immigrants, the so-called Dream Act kids who have gone through our schools, should have the opportunity to become permanent residents, and then apply for citizenship. If we're growing them here, why not convert them to legal residents? It costs us more to import workers.