Latinos are feeling the negative effects of increased attention to illegal immigration, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released Thursday.
"The immigration issue has affected all Latinos. Any person of brown color. They're looked at as immigrants," said Balvino Irizarry, president of the Hispanic Leadership Council of Stanislaus County.
More than half of Latino adults surveyed said they worry that they, a family member or close friend could be deported.
"People are not going out to shop for fear the next place they go they'll be stopped, questioned and arrested," said Jose Rodriguez, president and executive director of El Concilio, which has offices in Modesto and Stockton.
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Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, making up about 15.5 percent of the population. Of that, about a quarter are undocumented, or illegal, adult immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
With a large percentage of the population composed of illegal immigrants, the researchers wanted to know how Latinos feel about the heated immigration reform debate.
About two-thirds of those surveyed said Congress' failure to enact an immigration reform bill has made life more difficult for Latinos. Less than a quarter said having the spotlight shined on immigration issues has had a specific negative impact on them personally.
Rodriguez sees both the positives and negatives of the issue.
"It's waking up the Hispanic community to the importance of voting. The bill failed because we didn't have a voice," he said. The negative effect is that "people are now using the word 'illegal' synonymously with 'Latino,' " he added.
In the past two years, Congress has twice tried and failed to pass comprehensive legislation addressing illegal immigration. At the same time, state and local governments have passed enforcement regulations and procedures. And deportations have increased over the last few years, according to Lori Haley, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Avoiding government services
That has had a chilling effect on how much Latinos reach out for help. Twenty-two percent of Latinos in the Pew report said they've become less likely to use government services since the immigration issue flared up. That could include law enforcement.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said crime victims should not be afraid to go to law enforcement for fear of being found out and deported because local law enforcement cannot legally enforce federal immigration laws. But if criminals are arrested, jailed and found to be in the United States illegally, they will be prosecuted for it, he said.
While local police and sheriff's deputies do not look for illegal immigrants, researchers asked Latinos how they felt about local law enforcement agencies taking an active role in identifying illegal immigrants. About 79 percent prefer local law enforcement not play an active role.
While many Latinos say they think the immigration debate has negatively affected them, people such as Rodriguez hope it's for the best.
"My hope is that this issue is used to inform the community that it's important to become involved in the political process," he said.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
Latinos have felt the heat as debate over illegal immigration flared up.
Here's how Latinos feel:
- One in four say the overall situation for Latinos has improved in the past year.
Source: Pew Hispanic Center report