WASHINGTON North Carolinas Latino advocates are voicing alarm following the governors decision to eliminate the states office for Latino affairs.
The closing of the Office of Hispanic/Latino affairs was sudden and caught many by surprise. The move appears to have exacerbated the already tense relationship between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the Latino community, including criticism over a drivers license plan for young immigrants.
Advocates say it sends a message that McCrory and Raleigh conservatives are less concerned with the needs of the Latino community. Paradoxically, it comes at a time when issues of deep concern, such as immigration, are at the political forefront.
A spokesman for the governor said the duties of the office were being shifted to the office of community and constituent affairs.
We are committed to serving the needs of all of North Carolinas citizens, Thomas Stith, the governors chief of staff, said in a statement. We dont segment our constituents by race or cultural background any more than we separate them by age or gender. In addition, the Governors Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs is a valuable resource to help us address culturally sensitive issues.
But advocates such as Jess George, executive director of Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, sees the move as a contradiction to national efforts by the Republican Party to appear more welcoming to Latinos. Those efforts include officially supporting calls to legalize the nations 11 million illegal immigrants.
The message from Raleigh is that Latinos in North Carolina dont matter, she said. To close the office of Hispanic affairs only goes to confirm what many people suspect in our state, which is that, despite movement with the Republican Party at the national level towards more bipartisan solutions around comprehensive immigration reform, North Carolina conservatives dont seem to have gotten the same memo.
The concerns are just the latest clash that McCrory has had with the Latino community since his election last fall.
One of his first orders of business after taking office this year was signing off on the pink licenses for young immigrants who had been living in the country illegally but were granted federal protections from being deported. The licenses, which included a large pink stripe, were scrapped amid the uproar led by advocates who described them as a modern-day scarlet letter.
A sign to the community
The office was where Latino leaders went to get the governors feedback on policy decisions affecting the community. It was a resource for victims needing shelter and bilingual assistance during hurricanes and other natural disasters. It also held community forums and collected demographic statistics on the states fastest-growing ethnic community, which now exceeds 800,000 residents.
But leaders say the larger role may have been what the office symbolized.
It was kind of a sign to the community that our concerns were taken seriously, said Angeline Echeverría, executive director of El Pueblo, the Raleigh-based Latino rights group. There was a formal mechanism for representation of community interests. And I have received calls from community members, folks from other organizations, saying, Why did they close this? Do they no longer think that its important for Latinos to be represented in state government?
Judy Jefferson, the governors director of community and citizens savings, broke the news during a meeting with the governors Latino volunteer advisory council, said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, chairwoman of the Governors Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs.
Rocha-Goldberg said Jefferson assured the group that she would hire well-trained bilingual staff to fulfill all the offices duties, but Rocha-Goldberg and others remain concerned, considering the roles the office played.
She said that many Latinos from the Stony Brook neighborhood in Raleigh depended on the agency to find shelter and receive federal aid when their mobile homes were destroyed by the April 2011 tornado.
State Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Lexington and chairwoman of the House committee that oversees the governors budget, said she hadnt heard about the elimination of the Latino outreach office. But budget cuts were the reality given the states tight budget situation.
We are going to be real careful, she said. We are just looking at every efficiency across the board. And youre going to have to prove (spending) to us, every position.
Created in 1998, the office was designed to coordinate various state programs intended to meet the needs of the Latino community, such as migrant health, cultural diversity, and domestic violence training.
For many years, it maintained two staff people, including the director and an assistant, said Matty Lazo-Chadderton, the final director under former Gov. Bev Perdue. Lazo-Chadderton said the office was later changed to the director and a volunteer.
McCrory and Latinos
McCrory didnt always have a rocky relationship with Latinos. For much of the 14 years he served as Charlottes mayor, he was considered a friend and ally. He issued Hispanic heritage month proclamations at the annual Latin American festival. In 1999, he helped persuade Time Warner Cable to add Univision, a Spanish-language channel, to its lineup.
And he created the Mayors International Cabinet to help the city adapt to its new diversity. The cabinet urged the airport to put up signs in Spanish.
But the relationship began to sour as McCrory took a more aggressive approach with illegal immigrants in the years leading up to his gubernatorial bid. In 2006, he criticized the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Departments practice of not asking crime victims their legal status.
In his unsuccessful 2008 bid for governor, he opposed allowing illegal immigrants to attend community colleges. And he promised to expand a federal program that allows local law enforcement agencies to detain illegal immigrants and begin deportation.
In his 2012 campaign, McCrory didnt emphasize the issue, saying in a debate that he didnt think any state measures were needed to address illegal immigration.
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