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Usually optimistic Latinos pessimistic

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NAVARRETTE COLUMN

America’s largest minority is a paradox. Latinos have a reputation for being fatalistic. Yet many, especially immigrants, also share an entrepreneurial belief that people chart their own destinies.

The result is 46 million Americans – 15 percent of the U.S. population – who vacillate between pessimism and optimism.

At the moment, pessimism has the upper hand. According to a new survey from the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos in the United States are increasingly gloomy about their own situation, the economy and their prospects for future success.

That is true of many Americans. However, it’s precisely because Latinos – as with other groups with a strong immigrant tradition – are known for being optimistic and overcoming obstacles that a surge of pessimism should be taken seriously. Imagine what other groups typically less optimistic are going through.

Many Latinos say they are being picked on, discriminated against and turned into scapegoats. They have been blamed for crime, crowded schools and overburdened hospitals. Now they’re supposedly responsible for traffic congestion, pollution, global warming and the Wall Street financial crisis?

A reader who usually complains about how Latinos are changing the culture suggested a novel theory for the banking meltdown. The main cause, he said, was “loans to Hispanics who could and would not pay their mortgages.”

That’s odd. From what I’ve seen – including a story on CBS’ “60 Minutes” – most of the folks who are handing over house keys and deserting bad mortgages don’t look Hispanic.

Besides, all this blame heaped on Latinos makes you wonder what non-Latinos have been doing with their time. Haven’t they contributed anything to America’s problems? Can’t they be more productive?

It is little wonder that half of Latinos surveyed said that the Latino condition in the United States was worse now than a year ago.

In last year’s survey, a third felt that way. Nearly 10 percent of Latinos polled said they had been stopped by police or other authorities and questioned about their immigration status, including 8 percent of U.S.-born Latinos who shouldn’t have to put up with such harassment.

Nearly 15 percent claimed it had been difficult to get or keep jobs because of their ethnicity; 10 percent said the same thing about housing. And 57 percent of Latinos said they worried that a friend or relative would be deported.

This last figure seems high and, for many, it will reinforce the stereotype that most U.S. Latinos are undocumented. The Pew Hispanic Center made a point of not asking foreign-born respondents about their legal status. As a result, the sample may include a disproportionate share of illegal immigrants.

That may also explain why a majority of those surveyed opposed workplace raids and the criminal prosecution of illegal immigrants. According to Pew, a majority – 53 percent – even opposed the more innocuous practice of businesses attempting to electronically verify the legal status of workers.

I find this troubling. The Hispanic community always has put a strong emphasis on law and order. That is a tradition to be proud of, and it must not be compromised just because some Latinos favor an open border and won’t accept that illegal immigrants are breaking the law.

So what does the fact that so many Latinos are unhappy portend for the presidential election? It could be bad news for John McCain, the survey suggests.

About a third of Latinos say that the immigration issue will influence how they vote; 50 percent said Barack Obama was the better candidate for immigrants, while just 12 percent said that about McCain. Sixty-six percent of Latinos back Obama, and just 23 percent support McCain.

Others polls show more enthusiasm for McCain among Latinos. Experts insist that McCain needs 35 percent of the Latino vote to have a chance to win.

If McCain’s problems with Latinos go beyond illegal immigrants who can’t vote to include U.S. citizens who can, the Republican has miles to go – and not long to get there.

So should McCain give up on winning over Latinos? No way. He should be optimistic and channel that optimism into his message.

By doing that, he could connect with Latinos – and, at the same time, help them reconnect with the hopefulness that brought them to this country in the first place.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

The San Diego Union Tribune

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