Making good on a commitment made to city leaders after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the National Council of La Raza chose New Orleans as host city for its 2013 annual conference this year, now underway at the Morial Convention Center.
It’s the first time La Raza has held its conference in New Orleans. The organization, founded in 1968 to promote civil rights and advocate for Mexican immigrants in California and the Southwest, is now the nation’s leading pan-Latino advocacy group, with 300 affiliates spread around the country.
The group’s annual meeting, which began Saturday, comes at a time of intense national debate over a proposed immigration reform package now under consideration in Washington, D.C. — and also at a time when the New Orleans area has seen a spike in its Hispanic population in the post-storm years.
“The Latino community was critical to the resurgence of the city after Katrina,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who addressed a Saturday luncheon held to honor La Raza’s affiliates, a confederation of community groups from around the country that provide grassroots support to Hispanics.
“We’re thrilled to host you here for the first time,” said Landrieu, who used his time at the podium to extol New Orleans’ melting-pot history.
“We are an international city,” Landrieu said. “Our greatest strength comes from our diversity.”
The first for La Raza was also a first for conference attendee Rene Arlain: This was the Brooklynite’s first trip to New Orleans.
Arlain came to represent the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp., a La Raza affiliate based in his home borough.
He also hoped to spend some time on Frenchmen Street during the conference’s off-hours.
Arlain’s organization was typical of many of the community groups on hand.
Cypress Hills Development offers a range of programs and services designed to help Hispanics on their journey of assimilation, from finding housing, to workforce development, Arlain said.
“The affiliates help Latino families open doors to the American dream every day,” said La Raza president and chief executive officer Janet Murguia.
The organization has taken a lead in promoting a wide-ranging immigration-reform package that’s stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
“It is important that La Raza has put immigration reform at the top of the agenda,” Arlain said.
The bill under consideration would, among other things, offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that many opponents consider to be akin to amnesty.
Keynote speaker Marc Morial had some critical words for those who would oppose immigration reform — or immigrants themselves.
“This nation is on a path to be the greatest multicultural democracy in humankind,” said Morial, the former New Orleans mayor and current head of the National Urban League.
“That is not a future to fear, but one that this nation must embrace.”
Morial described an American immigration system that was “broken and inconsistent with the values of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. It’s time for the House of Representatives to act, and to act now— and they should have acted yesterday,” he said.
“We’re on the cusp of a new, distinctly American movement.” Morial added. “This generation’s affirmation of life, liberty and economic opportunity for all.”
In addressing the Hispanic-dominated audience, Morial hinted at the divide between the African-American communities that he represents and the one that La Raza represents.
He told the luncheon audience that La Raza’s Murguia had striven to “strengthen ties between African-American and Hispanic communities” and, in doing so, tacitly acknowledged the mutual suspicion and conflict that has characterized relations between blacks and Hispanics — often over access to economic opportunities.
“We are building new bridges,” Morial said. “Let’s operate as friends, and from a platform of respect.”
The conference continued after the luncheon with a series of town hall meetings and workshops that hit on kitchen-table issues of concern for the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic population. The 2010 U.S. census showed that at least 33,500 persons of Hispanic origin moved to the greater New Orleans region after Hurricane Katrina. It also showed a spike in the percentage of Hispanics in the city of New Orleans from about 5.7 percent of the population to about 6.8 percent.
Those percentages translated into a net gain of about 3,250 Hispanics in a city that lost over 100,000 of its black residents after the storm, according to the census figures.
La Raza events and workshops continue through Tuesday night, when first lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to close out the conference.