Tuesday, I met our country’s newest Americans, right here in Lawrence. I had the privilege of addressing the 10th annual naturalization ceremony at Kansas University’s Dole Institute of Politics, held with the support of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. This ceremony brought home for me how much things have changed since I started my freshman year at KU 35 years ago this month.
Growing up in Kansas City, Kan., I could never have imagined welcoming 100 new Kansans from more than 43 different nations. But that’s the reality of today’s Kansas, where both the immigrant and the Hispanic communities have grown by leaps and bounds. In just the last decade, the Latino population grew by 59 percent. In fact, one out of every 10 Kansans is now Hispanic.
The impact of this population on our state is felt every day. The Hispanic community has more than $6.7 billion in purchasing power. Its businesses account for $1.3 billion in sales and employ nearly 8,000 people in Kansas. In many ways, Latinos are breathing new social and economic life into some of the hardest-hit areas in America’s heartland.
Today I urged these new citizens, who have already made their presence in Kansas’s economy known, to take an equally important role in Kansas’ civic life. Of course, I want them to register to vote and participate fully in all of the state’s elections, but I also urged them to get their family and friends to naturalize, vote and even consider running for office themselves. As a key part of Kansas’ future, these new Americans need to have a strong, audible voice.
The same holds true nationally. Latinos continue to be this country’s fastest-growing population, but the other rapidly growing groups are communities of color, such as Asian Americans. And this trend will only get stronger. For example, while one in every six Americans is Latino, for those under the age of 18, the number is one in four. In fact, nearly one million Hispanics will turn 18 every year from now until 2028.
Latinos are not only Kansas’ future, they are America’s future. It is time for us as a country to ensure that a group so crucial to protecting America’s prosperity is able to contribute as much as it can. In the short run, this means passing comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible to put the 11 million undocumented Americans on a path to legality that will benefit all of us, especially when it comes to the nation’s fiscal health. It also means investing in immigration integration efforts such as English and naturalization classes so that aspiring Americans are fully equipped to take their place in guaranteeing America’s future strength.
In the long run, we need to invest in all of our children, particularly when it comes to education and health. Expanding access to early childhood education and health care is essential to securing these kids’ future, and our own. None of this will be easy or done without controversy, but after meeting these new citizens and seeing their enthusiasm, dedication, and pride in their country, I am more optimistic than ever that we will do what is good — and right — for all Kansans and for all Americans.