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voxxiBy Griselda Nevarez, Voxxi

The November election changed the nation’s thinking of the Latino community, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Speaking at MALDEF’s Latino State of the Union on Thursday, Saenz recalled hearing many pundits on election night last year using numbers to describe the Latino community. Some numbers they used: 12.5 million Latino voters, one in six Americans are Latinos, one in five of public school students across the nation are Latinos, and one in four of those of preschool age children are Latinos.

But Saenz warned that “the true story” of last year’s election is not about the numbers.

maldef latino state of the union“It’s about the wisdom and discernment of Latino voters who would not be sawed, who would not be fooled by an unexplained and conveniently timed shift on a candidate’s position on the critical issue of immigration,” he said.

“The strategy seemed to be that you could say one thing in primary season and another in the general election and Latino voters would not notice or care.” He added. “The results proved that strategy to be disastrously wrong.”

The impact Latinos had in last year’s election was one of the many topics Saenz and a divers panel discussed during MALDEF’s Latino State of the Union held Thursday in New York.

Workers rights stressed during Latino State of the Union

Among the panelists was former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who emphasized the importance of worker safety and protection in the workplace.

“As former Labor Secretary, I made worker protection one of my top priorities,” she said. “We must not go back on this during this next term.”

Under Solis’s reign, the Department of Labor hired 300 wage and hour investigators—many of them bilingual—to specifically work with low-wage and vulnerable workers. Additionally, the Wage and Hour Division recouped more than $240 million for more than 300,000 low-wage workers last year.

Despite these efforts, Solis said many migrant workers are still afraid to report mistreatment, harassment and retaliation because they’re afraid it could lead to more abuse or loss of their jobs. Here hope is that the Department of Labor will continue to make worker protection a top priority.

“It’s imperative that until we achieve comprehensive immigration reform that workers not be denied the right of federal minimum wage or overtime,” she added.

Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), was among the panelists who participated in the Latino State of the Union and who agreed with Solis on the urgency to protect the rights of workers.

He also spoke about the “Trabajadoras” campaign that his organization launched in January 2012 to advocate for Latina workers. The campaign focuses on researching the issues Latina workers face in the workforce as well as educating them on their rights and what they can do to protect themselves from unfair treatment.

Sanchez added that anyone who “disrespects our sisters in the workplace” is directly disrespecting LCLAA, the labor movement and the Latino community.

“We are not going to allow that,” he said.

Latinos to closely monitor immigration reform plan

On immigration, Sanchez said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and President Barack Obama seem to be “obsessed with deportations” instead of focusing on the impact of the 400,000 deportations per year.

“We don’t have somebody really telling the story of our communities, the devastation that [the deportations] represent,” he said, adding that undocumented immigrants will continue to be deported unless Congress acts quickly to pass immigration reform.

Saenz said Latino voters would be closely monitoring the immigration reform proposal that the “Gang of Eight” senators are set to introduce by the spring. He said Latinos want a plan that doesn’t emphasize on border enforcement and creates a speedy process for Latinos to become citizens.

“We will evaluate the truth of what you label immigration reform, and what we will expect are new policies that reflect the realities of today,” he said.

In closing remarks, Aracely Munoz Petrich, commissioner of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, challenged Latinos to educate others about immigration reform and the other issues the Latino community is facing.

“We can change many hearts and minds by taking a moment to educate folks about our community, which is something that has just not been done,” she said.

This article was first published in Voxxi.

Griselda Nevárez is a reporter with Hispanic Link News Service in Washington D.C.

[Photo courtesy MALDEF]

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