At the border, at the workplace, and in higher education, Latinos are forcing America to revisit conventional wisdom about immigration and civil rights by reconsidering popular assumptions about citizenship and identity as well as processes of assimilation and pluralism. In each of these areas, Latinos have sparked identity crises for American institutions. Because of the ambiguities surrounding Latinos, they are at times treated as an opportunity, and at other times as a threat. In immigration debates, Latinos are portrayed alternatively as victims and victimizers. Either the Latino is fleeing economic hardship or political persecution to seek refuge in the United States, or the Latino is an intruder who is stealing work from native-born Americans and jeopardizing American identity. At work, bilingual Latinos are characterized as assets and as liabilities. The Latino can make a unique contribution by translating for customers and monolingual co-workers, but the Latino can disrupt the workplace by using Spanish to exclude monolingual English speakers from the conversation. In higher education, Latino students are finds and frauds. They can bring a unique and previously unrepresented perspective to the learning process, yet they are unfairly capitalizing on affirmative action without suffering a history of discrimination comparable to that of Blacks.

These articles begin to show that the ambiguities that appear to reside in the category “Latino” in fact reflect longstanding contradictions in institutional philosophies. Because of their complex make-up, Latinos remind us that the normative criteria underlying immigration and civil rights policy are contestable. The uncertainties surrounding Latino identity reside as much in uneasy policy compromises as in the history and circumstances of Latinos themselves. If Latinos successfully emerge from the shadows of the policy process, their participation could help to clarify pressing questions of access and opportunity that the United States faces as a liberal democracy with diverse constituents in a global economy. Then, perhaps, Latinos will really matter in the public policy debate.

Professor of Law, Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley; A.B., 1978, Stanford University; J.D., 1981, Yale Law School