II. Why Is Research on Latinos Important?
The need to transcend the black–white paradigm of U.S. criminological research is obvious. Latinos comprise both native-born (60%) and foreign-born (40%) individuals, making them a very diverse group in terms of historical background, their manner of reception, and their year of entry into the United States. This last factor is important to acknowledge, because since 1960, the Latino population has experienced substantial growth due to rapid migration from Latin American countries and the Caribbean, along with high levels of fertility. Latinos are now the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the United States, meaning that the nation is as racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse as it was at the turn of the 20th century, and the Latino population will likely continue to grow in the near future. Also, according to the U.S. census, the population of immigrants who are eligible for naturalization was 8.5 million in 2005; of these, more than one third, or nearly 3 million, were Mexican-origin Latinos (Rodriguez, Saenz, & Menjivar, 2008). Thus, not only are Latinos of Mexican origin are less likely to become U.S. citizens, but also the number of naturalized citizens from Mexico rose by 144% from 1995 to 2005—the sharpest increase among immigrants from any major country.
This growth has implications for the United States. Stereotypes regarding the Latino population proliferates in public discourse in the United States, fueled by media reports and perpetuated by some politicians. Most of these stereotypes go unchallenged even while they contribute to the notion that Latino immigrants are a dangerous threat to the nation. According to Leo Chavez (2008), these stereotypes include that Latinos are uneducated peasants, drug dealers, on welfare, and prone to commit crime. Moreover, new policy mandates for tightening the border and singling out illegal immigrants or criminal aliens, who are primarily of Mexican origin, are encouraged by politicians and commentators for the sake of enhancing national security. These mandates include the deployment of the National Guard, the building of a fence at the border between Mexico and the United States, and the labeling of undocumented immigrants as criminal aliens. Immigration policy now reflects national concern about local crime even though there is little systematic research linking these topics.
The failure to conduct research in this area also means that our understanding of this group, relative to whites and blacks, will be underdeveloped. This change requires researchers to consider whether Latinos are exposed to police tactics in a manner similar to black or white residents. If the groups are treated similarly, does immigration or legality status shape the manner in which Latinos are treated by the criminal justice system? As noted earlier, undocumented Latinos are now being targeted by local and federal police agencies, singled out from others in disadvantaged communities, which sets the stage for potential conflict between police and residents. Much like the neighborhoods studied by pioneering researchers in 1931, these activities are concentrated in economically disadvantaged communities, reminding us that economic conditions shape crime, violence, and perhaps police reactions to residents in some poor neighborhoods. However, the outcomes of criminal justice tactics are underexamined for Latinos, and many questions about Latinos and reactions to the police remain unanswered.
For example, although much of the Latino growth is in traditional settlement areas in the southwestern United State, there is substantial movement to places that are new Latino destinations or places where few Latinos resided in previous decades. Havidan Rodriguez and colleagues (Rodriguez, Saenz, & Menjivar, 2008) noted that the emergence of anti-immigrant laws or ordinances have proliferated in these new destination points, aimed at preventing “illegals” from securing housing, punishing business owners, and allowing local police to search for “illegals” or to ask about legality status, an issue typically in the federal domain. Take, for example, the village of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which, according to the 2000 census, has a population of approximately 23,000 residents, about 5% of whom were Hispanic/Latino (Martinez, 2002). In 2006, local officials passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a measure that would have resulted in racial profiling, discrimination, and denial of benefits to legal immigrants. This ordinance imposed fines of up to $1,000 to landlords who rented to “illegal” immigrants, denied business permits to corporations who employed undocumented immigrants, and made English the official language of the village. Latinos bore the brunt of the latest anti-immigrant hysteria in Hazleton and other places that implemented similar restrictions. Thus, the consequences of anti-immigrant/ Latino initiatives are that all Latinos, legality of citizenship status aside, are singled out by politicians and the media and are presumed to be in the country illegally.
It is important to note that not only is the composition of the Latino population (e.g., Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Dominican) unlike that of most other racial and ethnic groups but also that the Latino population differs from earlier immigrants. The Latino population is growing and is estimated to represent about one quarter of the U.S. population by 2030 (Chavez, 2008). Although they are still concentrated in the southwestern states, Latinos are also drawn to other regions of the country, and they work in diverse sectors of the economy. Last, they are connected to their home countries, and many send money back to their country of birth. Remittances or money sent from immigrants in the United States is an important source of revenue for many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. A decline in this revenue is ominous and shapes interactions with others left behind as well as Latino immigrants’ absorption into U.S. society. It also potentially creates more poverty in the home country.