ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Border Report) – Hector Flores remembers the days when young Latinos went to underequipped public schools and faced the prospect of dropping out and working in agricultural fields or factories.

“It was separate but unequal; you don’t know what it feels like when people act as if you’re not there,” the 81-year-old Texas activist said. “I’ve seen lots of changes in my long life because once you succeed academically, you’ll succeed in the workforce.”

And succeed they have – to a degree. Hispanic Americans are now the largest minority group (62.1 million people) in the country and contribute $2.8 trillion a year to the U.S. economy. The 5 million Latino-owned businesses in the nation provide jobs to 3 million workers and, If they were a country, they’d surpass the gross domestic product of France and the United Kingdom, according to estimates.  

But challenges remain. Latinos experience higher unemployment rates, make 25% less and their net economic assets are only one-fifth when compared to non-Hispanic whites, according to a 2022 report by the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee. Only one in four Latino-owned businesses receive bank loans over $100,000.

Those are disparities the League of United Latin American Citizens seeks to address as it holds its national convention in Albuquerque this week. Organizers expect to draw 10,000 participants and leave the city a $13 million economic windfall. The convention at the Albuquerque Convention Center offers a job fair featuring private companies and the military branches.

LULAC National President Domingo Garcia said the group – the oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights organization in America – has a long-standing commitment to education, economic opportunities and political representation for Latinos.

“Our number one priority is the economy: making sure we have jobs for Latinos and access to (government) contracts,” Garcia said. “We have a lot of challenges in education, in voting rights and especially immigration.”

The LULAC national convention and expo at the Albuquerque Convention Center. (Border Report photo)

Garcia said LULAC is concerned about anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in Texas and Florida and is planning to sue Texas over the placement of buoys in the Rio Grande to deter migrants from coming across. “We cannot keep seeing (reports of) DPS troopers told to throw children back into the river. That’s not the America we know, that’s not the Christianity I’ve been taught.”

LULAC advocates for immigration reform to legalize millions of undocumented migrants who have resided in the country and contributed to the economy for many years and are the parents of U.S.-born children. The current political divide in Congress has brought immigration initiatives on both sides of the aisle to a halt, but Garcia said that likely will change in 2024.

“The road to the White House goes through the barrios and Latino neighborhoods of America and the fact of the matter is we not only have swing states like Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, but also Latinos making an impact in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” the Dallas-based personal injury lawyer said. “And I think Texas and Florida are still up for grabs.”

Almost 10 percent of the U.S. Congress consists of Hispanic representatives or senators, according to the Congressional Research Service. That is a record number. And with Hispanics accounting for half of the country’s population growth from 2010 to 2020, the numbers are likely to keep growing and influence federal economic and immigration policies, LULAC officials said.

Both Garcia and Flores said the overwhelming majority of migrants that have come across the border in the past two and a half years seeking asylum will make a positive impact on the U.S. economy in the long run.

“Many of our great companies started with immigrants coming here with ideas and becoming very successful entrepreneurs,” Flores said. “Besides Native Americans, everyone else has been an immigrant. The governor (of Texas) has forgotten about that. He’s doing the wrong thing by trying to keep (migrants) out and shutting their success because that will be our success (as a nation), too.”