Kansas City, Mo. Officials who promote the rights of Hispanics at the state level may form a new, national organization aimed at bringing to Washington their perspectives on the challenges of illegal immigration.
Friday marked the end of the first national summit of state commissioners of Latino and Hispanic affairs.
Delegates spent three days discussing strategies and debating the wildly different approaches their states take to deciding such issues as who can receive free health care or what identification to use when issuing drivers' licenses. And while they couldn't agree on the role the proposed national organization would play, Democrats and Republicans agreed to pool their strength to gain representation in the nation's capital for Latinos, who are the largest minority in the country.
"From New York to Kansas, we all have the same issues," said Maria Roman, senior policy adviser to New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican. "We need to come together to find alternatives for the working class, for the people who are coming to the U.S. to feed their families. I want to see this national organization get materialized."
Latino affairs commissioners don't draft immigration policy - that work is handled on the federal level - but they often end up finding solutions for people who entered the country illegally. While some said they designed slick marketing campaigns to promote in-state tuition for noncitizen students, others said they did more behind-the-scenes work, like silently killing bills to grant undocumented motorists driving privileges.
Particularly in states that are not traditionally thought of as having large Hispanic communities, the commissions influence the daily decisions made by governors and legislatures.
"Everybody in this room has the ears of their governors," said Kansas Hispanic Affairs Commissioner Elias Garcia, an appointee of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat. "To be at the table and to have the ability to speak about these issues, how great is that?"
Participants agreed to spend the next several months crafting strategy in subcommittees and to meet again at another national meeting in Utah in the summer. Garcia, who called the meeting, said it was too early to tell what form such an organization would take or the influence it might have in House and Senate campaigns next year.
But national observers said the meeting itself was significant.
"Every White House pays close attention to that kind of group," said Maria Echaveste, a former deputy chief of staff for President Clinton. "They're closer to the ground, and therefore they're in a position to tell you the reactions and feelings of constituents that are outside Washington."
The debate Friday morning inside Guadalupe Center, a Kansas City nonprofit, made it clear that finding consensus on the group's mission will be a challenge.
Some delegates framed the problem as one of how to counter an onslaught of "illegal aliens filling schools and clinics." Others, discussing the same situation, saw their charge as how to "help those who are out of status" or better "the plight of the undocumented."
"The fact that these commissions exist is almost a barometer that the Latino population is increasing in these states," said Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. "Then, as the Latino community started gaining political ground, as 'them' become 'us,' you don't need extra organizational bodies to articulate the concerns."