North Carolina’s Latino advocates are voicing alarm following the governor’s decision to eliminate the state’s 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.
Advocates says 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 concerns, like immigration, are at the political forefront.
The closing of the Office of Hispanic/Latino affairs was sudden and caught many by surprise. A spokesperson for the governor said the office was not being closed, but that its duties were being shifted to the office of community and constituent affairs.
“We are committed to serving the needs of all of North Carolina’s citizens,” Thomas Stith, the governor’s chief of staff, said in a statement. “We don’t segment our constituents by race or cultural background, any more than we separate them by age or gender. In addition, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs is a valuable resource to help us address culturally sensitive issues.”
But advocates like 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 nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
"The message from Raleigh is that Latinos in North Carolina don’t 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 don’t seem to have gotten the same memo.”
The office was where Latino leaders went to get the governor’s feedback on policy decisions impacting 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 state’s 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 it’s important for Latinos to be represented in state government?’”
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 so-called “pink licenses” for young immigrants who had been living in the country illegally, but 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 modern-day scarlet letter.
Judy Jefferson, the governor’s director of community and citizens savings, broke the news during a meeting with the governor’s Latino volunteer advisory council, according to Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, chairwoman of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs.
Rocha-Goldberg said Jefferson assured the group that she would hire well-trained bilingual staff, 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 2012 tornado.
Republican state Rep. Rayne Brown, chairwoman of the House committee that oversees the governor’s budget, said she hadn’t heard about the elimination of the Latino outreach office. But budget cuts were the reality given the state’s tight budget situation.
“We are going to be real careful,” she said. “We are just looking at every efficiency across the board. And you’re 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, according to Matty Lazo-Chadderton, the final director under the previous governor, Beverly Perdue. Lazo-Chadderton said the office was later changed to the director and a volunteer.
McCrory didn’t always have a rocky relationship with Latinos. For many of the 14 years he served as Charlotte’s mayor, he was considered a friend and ally. He issued Hispanic heritage month proclamations at the annual Latin American festival. In 1999, he helped convince Time Warner cable to add Univision, a Spanish-language channel, to its lineup.
And he created the Mayor’s 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 Department’s 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 2012 campaign, McCrory didn’t emphasize the issue, saying in a debate that he didn’t think any state measures were needed to address illegal immigration.