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Civil Rights in the United States

Civil Rights and Latinos in the United States

Fighting Discrimination against Latinos

Through legal and other actions, Latinos began in the mid-20th century to struggle against discriminatory laws but continue to be underrepresented in government.

The area from Texas to California was once part of Mexico. Thus, when the United States acquired the region in the mid-19th century, there was already a Mexican population living in the region. As Anglo-Americans—English speakers with British heritage—from the eastern United States settled in the region, they came to dominate it politically and economically. Discrimination against Mexican Americans became commonplace. Soon after the region was added to the United States, many Mexican Americans lost their land when new territorial governments refused to recognize land titles granted under Spanish or Mexican rule. Over time, Mexican Americans came to live in overcrowded urban areas called barrios and attended segregated public schools. They were routinely excluded from juries and discouraged from voting by poll taxes.

In 1929 several Mexican American groups joined together to form the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), an organization dedicated to fighting discrimination against persons of Latin American ancestry. LULAC also offered English-language instruction and helped noncitizens apply for citizenship and prepare for citizenship tests. As did the NAACP, LULAC initiated legal challenges to segregation. In Mendez v. Westminster (1947), a federal appeals court ruled that Mexican American children could not be segregated in California public schools. Shortly after the ruling, a California law ended segregated schools in that state. LULAC also won a Supreme Court case challenging the exclusion of Mexican Americans from juries in Texas.

Latino workers also pushed for better lives. Cesar Chavez was a labor leader and a founder of the United Farm Workers, which campaigned for Latino migrant farmworkers. Under his leadership, farmworkers went on strike demanding better pay, better working conditions, and recognition of the union. Chavez called on Americans to support the strike by boycotting grapes. Pressured by a successful boycott, the grape growers agreed in 1970 to improve wages and working conditions.

This labor activism was part of a broader activism among Latinos in the 1960s and 1970s. Many Mexican Americans began referring to themselves as Chicanos. The Chicano movement was an effort that stressed cultural pride and fought discrimination against Mexicans and other Latinos. One result of this activism was the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which mandated that public schools provide instruction to non-English-speaking students in their primary language while they learn English.

While persons of Mexican ancestry are the largest group of Latinos in the United States, Latinos come from many different countries and cultures. Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship in 1917, but they cannot vote for president (unless they reside in the one of the 50 U.S. states) and Puerto Rico has only a nonvoting representative in Congress. Many Puerto Ricans live in the mainland United States, but they suffer discrimination, resulting in lower incomes and higher poverty rates than for non-Latino whites. Cuban Americans form another significant Latino group. Many Cubans arrived in the United States as refugees following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, with another large influx coming in the 1970s. They formed a large community in Florida, with smaller, significant pockets in parts of the Northeast. Others migrated from the countries of Central and South America and Caribbean islands other than Puerto Rico.

Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, but they have been underrepresented in government. Latinos have made gains in Congress, more than doubling from 19 seats won in the 2000 election to 39 seats in 2016. Still, that left the proportion of Latinos in Congress as half their share in the population as a whole.

Growth of Latino Population, 2000–2050 (estimate)

Year Total U.S. Population Latino Population Latinos as Percentage of Total Population
2000 281,421,906 35,305,818 12.5%
2010 308,745,538 50,477,594 16.3%
2020 332,555,000 62,296,000 18.7%
2030 354,840,000 74,751,000 21.1%
2040 373,121,000 87,523,000 23.5%
2050 388,335,000 99,658,000 25.7%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, The Hispanic Population: 2010 and 2017 National Population Projection Tables

Issue of Undocumented Immigrants

Intense debate swirls over the matter of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are Latinos, including how to prevent further arrivals and the legal status of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants who are in the United States.

The United States has more than 10 million undocumented immigrants. An undocumented immigrant is a person from another country who has entered and is living in the country illegally. Latinos make up a large share of these people. Illegal immigration is a contentious issue, with many Americans supporting the deportation, or forced return to one's home country, of undocumented immigrants. Others argue that these people are important to the national economy and that, as long as they obey the law, they should be allowed to stay.

Undocumented immigrants do have some legal rights. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "no State shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." As the amendment specifies the rights of persons, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that noncitizens, whether documented or undocumented, accused of crimes have the same rights as other legal defendants. Similarly, publicly funded hospitals cannot deny emergency services to persons on the basis of their citizenship status. The Supreme Court has also ruled that states cannot deny access to public schools to undocumented immigrants.