"Latino" is a term used primarily in the United States to designate people of Latin American heritage or descent. Often, the term is treated as a synonym for Hispanic, although the latter only includes persons of Spanish-speaking origin. Latino is generally used more broadly to include non-Spanish speaking persons of Latin American descent, such as Brazilians. The U.S. Census considers Latino persons to share an ethnic group, not a race. Therefore, on the census individuals of any race can indicate that they are Hispanic or Latino.
Civil Rights and Immigration
The United States has long been a nation with a large immigrant population, but immigration policies have varied throughout the country's history. In the earliest years, the largest immigrant group to North America consisted of European men. Immigration (not including the arrival of African and Caribbean slaves) proceeded at a relatively low rate until the mid-19th century. By the mid-1800's, poor economic conditions in some European nations and a surge in industrial opportunities in the U.S. contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of immigrants entering the U.S. The wave of immigration in the latter half of the 1800's was dominated by the Irish and Germans, although other European ethnicities arrived in significant numbers. By the early 1900's, vast numbers of immigrants were still arriving, but the demographics had changed. Increasingly large numbers of southern and eastern Europeans were arriving in the eastern United States, while many Chinese and Japanese immigrants were arriving on the West Coast. In response, the U.S. government passed immigration quota laws in the 1920's which restricted the number of people who could enter the U.S. from any given country. In effect, the policy changes restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Central and South America.
The immigration policies of the 1920's stood until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act. By the 1960's, immigration was seen as a civil rights issue. Critics of existing policy included President John F. Kennedy, who considered immigration quotas to be at odds with democratic principles. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It removed national-origin quotas from immigration law. Instead, potential immigrants would be ranked based on skills, education, and family relationships. The Hart-Cellar Act opened the borders to populations that had been largely excluded from entry to the U.S. in earlier years, thus shifting the demographics of the country. Prior to 1965 the majority of immigrants in the U.S. were of European descent, but in the subsequent decades Latinos came to make up a majority of new immigrants .
The American Public by Ancestry, 2000
Especially in the southwest United States, people of Latino origin make up a significant proportion of United States residents.
Since the Civil Rights Era legislation that made Latino immigration possible, debates about immigration law have remained controversial. In particular, immigration from Mexico has surged since the late-1980's. People of Mexican origin are now the largest foreign-born group in the United States. While many Mexican and Latino immigrants enter the country legally, particularly through family reunification policies, a substantial number do not have legal-immigrant status — an estimated 700,000 new immigrants per year. Some politicians have sought legislation to curb the flow of immigration from Latin America, including a proposals for increased deportation, building a wall along the U.S./Mexican border, and harsher enforcement of existing laws. Many other politicians and voters instead seek to facilitate the acquisition of legal citizenship for current residents.
Contemporary immigration policy is widely considered to be a civil rights issue that disproportionately affects Latinos. Enforcement and labor policies often violate the rights that are afforded to U.S. citizens. For example, many Latino immigrants are employed in unregulated workplaces, where employers do not pay minimum wage and do not abide by health and safety regulations. Children of immigrants may be denied access to education or coerced into labor that violates child labor laws. Moreover, for fear of deportation or prosecution, immigrants without legal status do not have legal recourse when they are victims of crimes or exploitation. Current policy proposals aimed at reducing these rights violations include legislation to grant legal status to all children born in the U.S. as well as proposals for foreign worker programs that would grant legal status to foreign born laborers. These proposals are highly controversial among the U.S. electorate and politicians.
Because the majority of foreign-born Latinos in the United States speak Spanish as a primary language, and many second-generation continue to speak Spanish in their households, controversies surrounding language are sometimes considered to be civil rights issues affecting Latinos. In recent decades, politicians have repeatedly proposed provisions to make English the official language of the U.S. These proposals have never passed — the U.S. does not have an official language. But, if such propositions were to become law, it would make it substantially more difficult for Spanish-speaking Americans to vote, attend school, and participate in other civic rights and duties. In many cases, critiques of proposals to make English the country's official language accuse bill sponsors of attempting to disenfranchise Latinos — that is, of trying to reduce their political and economic power.
Proposals to change voting laws in recent years have also been met by criticism that they would prevent American Latinos from participating in the country's governance. In some states, redistricting, or the process of redrawing voting precinct boundaries, has divided voters to either segregate Latinos or prevent them from gaining a majority in historically white native-born American districts. Similarly, recent proposals to require more stringent identification at polling places is suspected of attempting to reduce Latino voter turnout because a disproportionate number of Latino citizens do not have drivers licenses or other forms of state-accepted ID.