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Candidates To Speak At Latino League Convention

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, they've always been the scourge of the playground and they have not gone away. In fact, some of them have a new hangout - cyberspace. The Mocha Moms on dealing with bullies. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we go to a gathering in the nation's capital of some of this country's leading Latino business, political, and community leaders. They are here for the annual convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC. The organization, believed to be the nation's oldest civil-rights organization for Latinos, is celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout the year. As part of their efforts to court the Latino vote, both presumed presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, are slated to speak at the LULAC convention today. With us now to talk about the convention, as well as the importance of the Latino vote in the upcoming election, is Brent Wilkes, national executive director of LULAC. Welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

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BRENT A: Thank you.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about LULAC. The organization's about 75 years old as I said. It describes itself as the nation's oldest Latino civil-rights organization. What are the issues LULAC was formed to address, and how has that changed over the years?

WILKES: Well, LULAC was formed at a time when discrimination was rampant throughout the United States, even in the southwest where Latinos were a major presence. And the organization was started to help address those civil-rights issues, as well as to help the community help itself through scholarships and educational opportunities.

MARTIN: I think many people are familiar with La Raza, it's - one of its important leaders, Raul Yzaguirre, is sort of a very big figure, sort of been political in civil-rights circles. What's the difference between LULAC and La Raza?

WILKES: Well, LULAC is a membership-based organization of individuals. They join the organization and they form councils. We've got over 600 councils around the county, which are branded LULAC entities, and they're volunteers helping to help the community and to address civil-rights issues. Well, La Raza is an organization of community-based organizations - they are affiliates - and they have affiliates throughout the United States. So we work together quite well because they represent the nonprofit community, we represent individuals.

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MARTIN: So it's kind of like the difference between the NAACP and the National Urban League, which works issues of importance to African-Americans, very similar in terms of structure?

WILKES: Absolutely. We have a history very similar to that of the NAACP, because we're an individual organization and we address civil-rights issues. And we've been around for a long time - since 1929.

MARTIN: The overt discrimination - that was the case that was often experienced by Latinos at the time at the organization's founding - is obviously no longer legal or tolerated. So what are the issues that LULAC is addressing today?

WILKES: Well, there still are quite a few important civil rights issues that we are addressing. When you look at immigration, for example, you could look at it as an issue of should we let immigrants in or not. But there's also a civil rights component to it that even affects U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents that are here, because of the way they're profiled and the way they're treated. The community is really being targeted by the anti-immigrant folks out there, including law enforcement. And so we're very concerned about what's going on with the raids in particular, that are taking place throughout the United States, and the violation of civil rights that we believe are occurring throughout the country.

But in addition to that we're talking about education. We're talking about a diversity in the government, which is a real important issue for us. We're talking about voting this year. We think that the Latino turnout is going to be very strong, and it's important to make sure that the Latino community is registered and ready to vote.

MARTIN: It's obviously a coup to have both presumed presidential nominees address your convention. You're also having Hillary Clinton address the convention later in the week. What are some of the things you're hoping to hear from these folks?

WILKES: Well, we certainly want to have them address some of the key issues impacting Latinos. We especially want to hear about their education plans, because they haven't really gone into that, specifically - what are they going to do to improve education in the United States? The Latino population has a dropout rate which is 50 percent. We've got to figure out a way to make sure that that is improved for the future because our whole country's economic future is based upon the Latino and African-American populations. If they aren't doing well, our country can't do well. So we've got to make sure we address that.

MARTIN: How do you see that as a civil-rights issue? We had this conversation last week with John Payton. We were talking about what would have been Thurgood Marshall's 100th birthday last week, on July 2nd. He raised the same issue around education. But the question remains for some people, why is that a civil-rights question as opposed to a question of administration, or a question of personal responsibility on the part of the parents? Tell me why that's a civil-rights matter as opposed to a matter of governance within individual jurisdictions? Do you know what I'm saying? I mean, I think people think of civil rights as a matter of disproportionate treatment under the law.

WILKES: Well, I think - I think that's exactly what's happening in education now. There' certainly - there's a component where it is personal responsibility. You've got to take your own responsibility for making sure you have a good education. And we certainly instill that in our youth. We've got lots of educational programs to address that and motivate students - motivate the community to help them.

But when you look at the schools and the fact that there's such a disparate environment for African-American and Hispanic students, and the suburban, largely white communities. The resources that the schools have - the quality that the schools have, the money that's going into the school systems, teachers themselves and their skills - there's a big difference and it's just not a level-playing field, and that's why it's a civil-rights issue. We don't have a level-playing field in public education. We've got to make sure that all children have an excellent opportunity to succeed. So, we're going to make sure that our kids do their part, but we also need the school systems to do their part, and that is a civil-rights concern. If there's unequal school systems, that's a civil-rights issue.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with Brent Wilkes. He's the national executive director of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. They're having their convention in Washington this week.

We mentioned that both presumed presidential candidates are going to be speaking to the convention attendees. It's clearly a sign that this is an important consistency and they're interested in having the vote. How significant do you think the Latino vote is going to be in the upcoming election? And specially compared to previous elections.

WILKES: Well, we've seen that the vote keeps growing, and we expect over 12 million Latinos to vote in this coming election. That's just an incredible number of Latinos voting, and there are important swing states, so states like Colorado and states like Nevada. Florida is another key state where the Latino vote is 30 percent of the vote there. So what makes a difference here is the Latino population like never before has grown to the extent that it's really critical that if a candidate is going to win, they have to pick up these new Latino voters.

MARTIN: But one of the points that I think most Latino activists would make, and Latino officials would make, is that this is not a monolithic vote.

WILKES: It is definitely not a monolithic vote, which is why it's in play, and it's why the candidates are working so hard to try to reach out. We've seen that some key issues - the Democrats tend to have the advantage with Latinos on immigration, on education. But then there's other conservative streaks that run through the community when you look at some social issues, and a large portion of the population is Catholic. They're concerned about some of the social issues, and so the Republicans have a chance to come and pick up that vote. And George Bush did very, very well. He picked up about 40 percent of the Latino vote last time he ran. His popularity has certainly fallen tremendously since then with the Hispanic vote.

MARTIN: And of course, John McCain as you mentioned has a reputation for being a moderate, at least in GOP terms, on immigration issues, or even to the point of being progressive. And Senator Barack Obama has won - has done very well among Latino voters in Illinois, in his home state. John McCain has done very well among Latino voters in Arizona. Do you feel comfortable assessing their relative strengths and weaknesses in relation to the Latino vote? I mean, who do you think has the edge?

WILKES: You know, I think both parties put together candidates that are probably the best at being able to pick up the Latino vote. Certainly John McCain of the Republicans was the most likely to be able to pick up the Hispanic vote. And Barack Obama's got a very progressive message on immigration and education and other important issues, so I think he has a great chance of picking up the Hispanic vote.

I think the edge is with Barack Obama at the moment, because of the fact that there's a lot of disillusionment with the Iraq War within the Hispanic population. It's a very patriotic community, and that's partly why they supported and rallied behind President Bush after 9/11, but they felt a little bit betrayed by the way the course of the war is going - the fact that it doesn't look like there's an end in sight. And I think that the economy's soured, and so some of these bread-and-butter issues have really soured Latinos on the Republican Party at the moment. So McCain's got his work to cut out for him.

MARTIN: And yet on the Democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton won more support throughout the primaries than Barack Obama did, and she's set to speak to the convention later in the week. What do you think - do you think she has something to teach Senator Obama about reaching out effectively to the Latino community?

WILKES: I'm not sure if she's got something to teach. I think she did a good job of reaching out to the community. And Barack is now really making tremendous steps, I think, to reach out to the community as well, so I think he'll be able to make himself familiar. I think it's just a matter of familiarity that was the issue advantage that Hillary had. She obviously had been with the president for 8 years, very much in the spotlight, had a chance to campaign in a lot of the communities that Barack hadn't been able to do.

In fact, Barack actually hasn't visited any country in Latin-America yet, so he hasn't had that exposure yet to the community. But now that he has been getting that exposure, Latinos have started to understand that his issues and what he stands for are something that can help them.

MARTIN: On the one hand, this convention is attracting very high-profile speakers. Obviously both presumed presidential nominees have made it clear of the importance of the community, and making time on their schedules to address the convention.

On the other hand, the convention is taking place not very far from Prince William County, Virginia. It's one of the local governments that has stepped up measures targeting illegal immigrants with the - really, the stated intention of driving them from the community, and a lot of legal residents and citizens feel very much targeted by these measures.

In a way you can sort of argue it's kind of good-news, bad-news story for Latinos in this country right now. To the degree that you can assess kind of the way the members feel - I know that's a difficult thing to do with an organization as large as this - how do they feel about their - what's the word I'm looking for? - status in this country right now? As a group, do you think the members feel that they are kind of fully integrated in the American story? Or do they feel like they're still a community apart, in the kinds of circumstances that led them to form this organization to begin with?

WILKES: You know, I think they feel very much a part of America. They're very patriotic, and they feel they've been here for many generations. Some of them talk about the fact that the border didn't - they didn't cross the border, the border crossed them. They've been in this country longer than a lot of the Anglo residents that are here.

But the concern that they have is that there is an element in this country that seems to be targeting the community, because of the growth of the population, and it's really a racial or ethnic issue that they seem to be targeting. But they're using immigration as a wedge to be able to get at the community, especially those that are undocumented. And so, that's really where there's a huge concern.

And I think it's - you're right, it's the best of times but it's the worst of times, because we've been seeing a backlash like we've never seen before, and we are very concerned about that. We don't feel that's coming from America so much as an extreme element in America, and they have somehow convinced some politicians that they're larger than they are. But the truth is, we think that's a small minority of Americans that don't appreciate the hard work of immigrants, and are really trying to target Latinos in these growing pockets throughout the country.

MARTIN: Brent Wilkes is the national executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. He spoke with us here in our Washington studio. He took a break from a busy convention schedule to come talk to us, so we thank him for that. Thank you for joining us, and good luck with the rest of the convention.

WILKES: Thank you so much for having me on.

MARTIN: We finally continue our coverage of the LULAC convention tomorrow with a conversation - with a round table of Latino voters. We'll get they're take on what the candidates had to say. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.