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June 15, 2016

The Future of Latinos in the United States: Law, Mobility, and Opportunity (A Project of the American Bar Foundation)

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The Latino population has grown rapidly and soon will be the second largest racial or ethnic group in the nation. In a few states, Latinos already outnumber other racial and ethnic constituencies, and in some cities and counties, they make up a majority of all residents. As a result, the future of Latinos in the United States will significantly shape the prospects and wellbeing of the country as a whole. This demographic transformation presents opportunities and challenges for the legal profession and for the system of justice.

As part of its commitment to studying diversity and law and to connecting cutting-edge research to today’s most pressing issues of law and policy, the American Bar Foundation (ABF) has launched a major initiative on “The Future of Latinos in the United States: Law, Opportunity, and Mobility.” This project supports research, teaching, and community outreach to address the needs and concerns of the rapidly expanding Latino population. In this article we describe the origins of the project, the mission it serves, and the initial activities we have organized. We close with a brief discussion of the next phases of the project and an invitation to practicing lawyers to get involved in this effort.

I. Introduction: Bridging the Research and Service Gaps

According to 2008 projections done by the Pew Research Center, nearly 20% of the United States population will be foreign-born by 2050. Many of these immigrant populations will come from Latin American countries and Latinos are expected to comprise nearly 30% of the population by 2050. In fact, Latinos will account for over 60% of the national population growth in the four decades spanning 2005-2050.

Of course, population growth alone is no guarantee of full inclusion and equality. So far, Latinos have lagged behind other groups on vital indicators like economic security and educational achievement. Census data show that in 2014, the average real median household income was $53,657, with white and Asian populations enjoying significantly higher incomes overall. The median household income of Latinos and Black Americans, however, was substantially lower than the average at $42,491 and $35,398, respectively. In 2015, 66.7% of Latinos achieved a high school degree or more, and only 15.5% earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. In comparison, 93.3% of whites received a high school diploma in 2015 and 36.2% received a bachelor’s degree. The most educated population by far are Asians, who are nearly four times more likely than Latinos to graduate from a four-year university. Latinos experience the lowest levels of educational attainment nationwide, placing them at a severe disadvantage at a time when bachelor’s degrees are minimum requirements for entry-level jobs. Latinos cannot reliably turn to the legal system for redress of inequities, in part because they lack legal representation, especially culturally competent legal representation.

This combination of demographic growth and persistent inequality spurred the creation of this project. The effort launched in May 2015 at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences with initial leadership from (now) Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar of the California Supreme Court as well as advice from a national advisory group of leading law and policy scholars. Since then, the initiative has been led by Rachel F. Moran, the inaugural William H. Neukom Fellows Research Chair in Diversity and Law at the ABF, and Dean Emerita and Michael J. Connell Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, and Robert Nelson, Director Emeritus and the MacCrate Research Chair in the Legal Profession at the ABF, and professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University. Neukom Chair Funds supported the first year of work on the project, including the hiring of Project Manager, Dr. Pilar Margarita Hernández Escontrías.

The American Bar Foundation has unique institutional resources to support a national initiative that addresses law’s role in shaping the future of Latinos. These include a long history of empirical research on inequality and the law, an outstanding research faculty with expertise in quantitative and qualitative methodologies, an ongoing program of research on diversity and the law, connections to the organized bar and law schools, and a track record of fellowship programs for undergraduates and graduate students working on issues related to inequality and law. Indeed, Justice Cuéllar participated in an ABF Summer Fellowship for undergraduates, an experience that he considers the beginning of his development as a lawyer and scholar.

A. Mapping Latino-Serving Organizations at the National and Regional Level

As a first step in developing our project, we did foundational research, some of which involved the creation of a database of Latino-serving organizations nationwide, as well as databases of law school clinics, foundations, and university research institutes. We imported a list of over 400 organizations into ArcGIS, organizing them by type of organization, services provided, areas of focus, languages spoken, and contact information. The infrastructure maps we created (see Figure 1 below for an example) are living documents, and we continue to add to them as we receive suggestions and feedback. We plan on creating a bilingual database of these materials so that Latinos and the individuals or organizations serving them can search for resources in their area.

Figure 1: GIS mapping of Latino-serving organizations in California (top); information provided on each location (bottom).

These maps document the infrastructure of research, advocacy, and service organizations available to students, scholars, activists, foundation officials, media representatives, and individuals seeking spaces for collaboration and exchange. Currently, there are organizations such as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) that provide lists of affiliate organizations. There is not, however, one centralized database that maintains a searchable map of providers and institutions serving the Latino population. Our maps are meant to be interactive and easily navigable, and we hope that by making the database a bilingual resource, it will be accessible to a wide audience.

B. Compiling and Summarizing Existing Research

In addition to our mapping projects, we have produced the most comprehensive annotated bibliography on Latino-related research available to date. Our annotated bibliography contains 415 academic and news media sources and is organized into nine major themes: 1) immigration, 2) political participation and civic engagement/activism, 3) civil rights, 4) economic opportunity, 5) families and family formation, 6) education, 7) health, 8) criminalization of Latinos, and 9) Latino news and media. We have published this annotated bibliography on our website.

This foundational research was crucial to our efforts because it provided us with a sense of both the infrastructure of organizational support and the intellectual universe that could undergird our project. We discovered burgeoning research literature and a growing infrastructure of Latino-serving organizations, but we concluded that a great deal remains to be done. Latinos are still an understudied and underserved population, and there is little collaboration and network-building among law schools, research centers, community organizations, foundation officials, and media organizations. Our project aims to bridge the gaps that exist among constituencies to lay the groundwork for law and policy reforms that benefit the Latino community.

II. Forging Our Mission

As the United States evolves into a nation with a majority of minorities, there are going to be dramatic shifts in the composition of that minority population. For every one hundred Americans you meet in 2050, 46 will be non-Hispanic white, 30 will be Latino, 13 will be African American, and 8 will be Asian American. To put these numbers in perspective, at the height of the civil rights movement, out of every 100 Americans, only about ten were non-white, and nearly all of them were African American. This impending and unprecedented demographic shift can upend our legal and political conventions, making the future seem like “a kind of limbo, a repository of endless surprises” because we “no longer see it as the expected culmination of the past, as the growing edge of the present,” to quote economic historian Robert Heilbroner. For just this reason, we cannot limit an initiative on Latinos to a recitation of the past or a portrait of the present. We must think deliberately about an uncharted future with all the complex scenarios it may hold. We are, of course, acutely aware that prediction can be a treacherous undertaking, but we also realize that without it, there can be no planning ahead.

A core belief that guides our work is faith in the power of law and policy to manage change, create opportunity, and promote mobility. In the face of potential obstacles, we believe that the foundational principles of liberty, equality, and dignity that undergird our Constitution confer “another kind of power that comes from the justice of our cause,” as labor organizer César Chavez once observed. In taking this view, we are quintessentially advocates of the notion that law is a public profession, one dedicated to promoting the general good as well as the individual interests of clients. We also recognize that we cannot possibly cover the entire law and policy landscape, so it has been essential to identify the key drivers that will be most impactful in shaping the future. We have settled on four: educational attainment, economic participation, civic engagement and political mobilization, and immigration policy. Each of these areas of law and policy is focused on agency and inclusion. Education is an engine of upward mobility that prepares students for civic and economic life. As the United States Supreme Court recognized in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), the denial of an adequate education can relegate children to an “underclass [that] presents most difficult problems for a Nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.” For Latinos, a persistent achievement gap could be a serious impediment to a bright future.

Similarly, our country has recognized the need for conditions of work that promote human dignity and liberty. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once observed, “A necessitous man is not a free man.” In the face of growing wealth and income inequality, questions of economic security are likely to be of special importance to Latinos who find themselves disproportionately vulnerable to low wages, job loss, and poverty. Civic engagement and political mobilization are the lifeblood of our democracy. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. made clear in his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech, without a voice in civic and political life, the promise of rights can ring hollow indeed. Latinos have long been characterized as the “sleeping giant” that has yet to convert numbers into political clout, and this ongoing civic empowerment gap could blight their future. Finally, immigration is the way that our nation defines the body politic, and it is the basis for creating terms of belonging for newcomers. If full integration and inclusion are to take place, these policies must be unblemished by overtones of bigotry and hate. As high-profile debates about immigration policy continue in our country, many Latinos find themselves at the center of questions about the deserving and the undeserving, the desirable and the deportable. This liminal status could have damaging consequences for the future.

With these four key areas of inquiry in mind, we set about deciding how we would approach our work. We wanted to build on the American Bar Foundation’s longstanding commitment to interdisciplinary research of the highest caliber. Yet, we also realized that because our research would address a future with profound social, economic, and political consequences, we needed to build bridges between the academy and the community. To that end, we determined to include not just faculty in a variety of scholarly disciplines in our discussions, but also critically important stakeholders from legal advocacy organizations and community organizations, emerging leaders, members of the media, and foundation representatives. Given the differences among Latinos in different parts of the country, we concluded that there was much to learn at the regional level and that these lessons would be influential in shaping national policy.

Though our focus is primarily on research, we also thought it critical to explore ways to train the next generation of leaders for the Latino community. Latinos remain severely underrepresented in the legal profession, with only 7.9% of law school graduates in 2014 identifying as Latino, and there is an ever-widening access to justice gap as the Latino population continues to grow. In determining how to address these concerns, we reflected on the seminal role that Howard Law School played in training young lawyers as it coordinated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund to craft an agenda for civil rights reform. Ultimately, that sustained collaboration changed the legal landscape of America by reinvigorating the promise of equal opportunity for all. Today, there is no equivalent of Howard Law School for the Latino community, but there are clinics at nearly every law school in the country. We hope to link clinics to public interest firms and pro bono programs at law firms so that advocates can think cooperatively, collegially, and creatively in advancing an agenda for law and policy reform on behalf of the Latino population. In so doing, we eventually hope to create a nationwide “Network for Justice,” which will operate to create legal and legislative support for the Latino community.

In addition to research and leadership training, we must be sure that our work reaches a broad audience. To that end, we plan to do outreach to the general public so that people can develop informed opinions about the Latino community and its role in American life. We are creating a website that will make it easy to get information about our research and leadership training initiatives, as well as updates on other events and initiatives that might be of interest. Because the Latino population is relatively young, we are making use of social media to get our message out too.

III. Seminal Conversations: Convening Diverse Stakeholders to Shape the Future of Latinos in the United States

To realize this mission, we have begun hosting a series of regional roundtables on the future of Latinos, and we have held a planning summit to address the worsening access to justice gap. Here, we share the results of these first meetings.

A. The Inaugural Midwest Roundtable

On June 6-7, 2016, with generous support from the Chicago Community Trust, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and Northwestern University’s Office of the Provost, the ABF convened over 80 thought leaders on Latino issues in the Midwest for our inaugural regional roundtable.

The roundtable brought together key stakeholders from Chicago and the Midwest, including law and non-law scholars, legal advocates, community leaders, politicians, media representatives, foundation representatives, and emerging leaders, to imagine the different futures for Latinos that are possible by 2050. Small group and plenary discussions explored vitally important issues that will influence the prospects for Latinos in the region in the coming years. Questions of immigration, education, economic opportunity, and civic and political engagement were central to the conversations that took place over the two-day event.

Keynote addresses were delivered by Professor Lilia Fernández (Department of History, Rutgers University), Ricardo Meza (Officer at Greensfelder Attorneys at Law, former Executive Inspector General for the State of Illinois, and former Regional Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Dr. Layla Suleiman González (Director, Human Services Interdisciplinary Program, Loyola University Chicago), Sylvia Puente (Executive Director, Latino Policy Forum), and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (Cook County Commissioner and formal Mayoral Candidate for the city of Chicago).

During the small group discussions, we asked our participants to think creatively about what the future might hold for Latinos in the Midwest. Given the future-oriented nature of our work, we thought we should experiment with some unconventional methodologies, in this case, scenario-building. We asked participants to explore the worst-case scenario (the “vicious cycle”) and the best-case scenario (the “virtuous circle”) and then infer from these exercises what a realistic scenario might look like. Specifically, we called on participants to contemplate the critical contingencies or uncertainties that will affect the future of the Latino community in the region.

We are currently in the process of examining the policy and research suggestions that emerged from these discussions and will be distributing a report shortly. The experience at the Midwest roundtable will be invaluable in preparing for additional regional roundtables and a culminating national summit.

B. The Network for Justice Planning Summit

On November 7, 2016, we held a planning summit at UCLA to launch a pilot Network for Justice in California with generous support from the California Bar Foundation, the California Community Foundation, a number of departments and offices at the UCLA campus, and UC Davis School of Law. The summit brought together over 50 participants from law school clinics, law firms, public interest organizations, foundations, and academic research centers, as well as a group of emerging leaders. Among the participants were California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, California Assemblymembers Lorena Gonzalez and Jose Medina, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund Thomas Saenz, California Rural Legal Assistance Executive Director Jose Padilla, President and Chief Executive Officer of the California Community Foundation Antonia Hernandez, California Bar Foundation Executive Director Sonia Gonzales, Dean of the UC Davis School of Law Kevin Johnson, and leading attorney and Emmy-award winning broadcast journalist Manny Medrano.

In putting together the summit, we were fortunate to benefit from the leadership of two leading clinicians: Luz Herrera, Professor and Associate Dean for Experiential Education at Texas A&M School of Law, and Leticia Saucedo, Professor and Director of Clinical Legal Education at UC Davis School of Law. Together, they designed a program that explored the state of Latinos in California, the nature of national and state advocacy networks, and models of advocacy that could guide the creation of a Network for Justice. Pilar Margarita Hernández Escontrías, the project manager for our “Future of Latinos” initiative, did extensive research using U.S Census Bureau and American Community Survey data to provide an overview of how Latinos in California are faring when it comes to immigration, educational attainment, economic participation, and civic engagement and political mobilization. With respect to immigration, she found that there was an overall increase in the number of foreign-born Latinos in every region in California from 2010-2014, with the exception of the Northern region. The highest increase in the Latino immigrant community occurred in the Central Region. As for educational attainment, Latinos in the North Central region experienced the greatest increase in school enrollment, graduation, and percentage of students completing college preparatory courses. As the number of Latinos increased in certain areas, the population sometimes faced greater economic instability. For example, Latinos in the Central region experienced the highest increase in food insecurity, resulting in record enrollment in the CalFresh supplemental nutritional assistance program from 2010-2014.

The size of the Latino population also correlates with important political consequences. For instance, in 2016, California congressional districts in which less than 10% of eligible voters were Latino disproportionately elected Republicans, while districts in which 20% or more of eligible voters were Latino overwhelmingly elected Democrats. We are currently reviewing the results of these discussions and demographic analyses to draft a strategic plan for launching a pilot Network for Justice in California.

IV. Conclusion

In her book of essays and poems entitled Borderlands: La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa describes the space that Latinos occupy as “others” in the United States. For Anzaldúa, the “border” not only exists in physical space, but also becomes inscribed upon Latinos who find themselves adapting to contradictory and ambiguous identities. This liminal identity can lead to profound structural inequalities but also can nurture an enduring faith that the future can be brighter. As Anzaldua notes, “Our strength lies in shifting perspectives, in our capacity to shift, in our ‘seeing through’ the membrane of the past superimposed on the present…”

As we look to an uncertain future, it becomes even more imperative that we produce research that matters. In the next year, we plan to host four more regional roundtables in Connecticut (scheduled for April 8-9, 2017, at Yale Law School), Florida, California, and Texas, as well as a national summit in Washington, D.C. Through these efforts, we will build new partnerships, share information, and create new knowledge. In addition, we will forge new networks that link the clinical resources at law schools to the Latino clients who need them, as we focus on the unique promise of law and policy in advancing the prospects of Latinos. We will use our website and social media to create a resource for anyone in the country who wants to learn more about the challenges confronting the Latino population. We welcome your ideas and appreciate your interest as we embark on this exciting journey into an unknown future with principles of fairness and equality as our compass.

For more information about our project on the Future of Latinos in the United States, please see our website at or contact our project manager Dr. Pilar Margarita Hernández Escontrías at [email protected].