PBS/NPR Host Maria Hinojosa: Latino/Latina Issues Among The Disappeared in Presidential Debates

After all the passion that has swirled around immigration in this year’s election campaign, a curious thing happened in all three presidential debates: Latino-focused issues were hardly mentioned.

When it came to real discussion, suggests Maria Hinojosa, it’s as if Donald Trump’s wall had already gone up.

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Hinojosa (above), the founder and CEO of the Futuro Media Group, is a former CBS and CNN reporter who hosts the long-running weekly Latino USA show on National Public Radio. She also hosted this fall’s PBS election special on demographics, America by the Numbers.

Now, she says, she’s frustrated – first that there was so little discussion of Latino concerns from Republican Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, and second that none of the three debate included a Latino or Latina moderator who could have pressed for such a discussion.

“Last night they finally spoke about immigration,” said Hinojosa Thursday. “For about two minutes. It was not a substantive conversation.

“Hillary stated a position that was familiar. She didn’t make any new or different proposals such as stopping deportations – even though the overwhelming majority of people involved have no criminal record.

“What she did finally do was paint a picture of the fears and the consequences” of current deportation policies, by citing a Nevada woman who is a citizen and fears her immigrant parents could be deported.

From Trump, she said, “There was not a lot of substance. . . . If you listen to Trump, you would think we all live in ghettos in the inner city.”

In fact, Hinojosa noted, the Latino community is the fastest growing in America, and it has spread through much of America with commensurate diversity.

“What you might know, for instance,” she said, “is that one in six Latinos and Latinas is an evangelical. And you would also be surprised how they split, politically.

“You’d think they would be Republicans, because they are anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. But they’re also very much in favor of a path to citizenship and a higher minimum wage and government programs. So they’re split almost evenly between political parties.”

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That’s the kind of nuance that hasn’t been addressed in this campaign, said Hinojosa, “and that’s bad not just for Latinos, but for everyone, because the issues we care about affect everyone.”

She noted education, housing, language, economic policies, social programs and diplomatic relations, just for starters.

“These are tough, complicated human issues,” she said, “that have international geopolitical implications.”

Non-Latinos shouldn’t think, she said, that these are matters for someone else.

“One in four children entering U.S. kindergartens this year was Latino or Latina,” she noted. “That will affect the future of all our children.”

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The presidential candidates would more likely have been steered to such issues in the debates, she said, had there been a Latino or Latina moderator.

“I have the utmost respect for my colleagues who moderated the debates,” Hinojosa stressed. “I know how hard the job is. But they couldn’t be expected to bring the passion to these issues that someone from my background would have brought.”

Hinojosa was born in Mexico and became a U.S. citizen in her 20s. She has spent much of her reporting life covering immigration and cultural issues, and she said she finds it frustrating to have had those issues largely ignored in the debates, the main forum where the press gets to choose the topics.

In several ways, she suggested, the candidates themselves may have been just as happy to skirt Latino/Latina issues.

“Hillary Clinton has some good ideas,” Hinojosa said, “but her problem is that they come off as policy without heart. So there could be land mines for her.”

As for Trump, he’s his own land mine, like when in the third debate he finished a call for heavily vetting immigrants by saying, “There are some bad hombres out there.”

“The use of the word ‘hombres’ was horrible,” said Hinojosa. “I couldn’t understand why he’d say it. It’s going back to the day when all Mexican men were just ‘Hombre.’ Nobody thinks that way any more.”

Like many journalists, Hinojosa finds it ironic that Trump has declared war on the media: “Suddenly his enemy number one is the group that gave him all that space and coverage in the first place, for everything he did.”

Still, she said, journalists don’t have the luxury of feuds with people they cover.

“I’m now four things this candidate has stated he does not like,” she said. “I’m Mexican. I’m an immigrant. I’m a journalist. I’m a woman.

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“As a journalist I would still treat him with respect. I would just be as hard on him as I would be on any other politician.”

As Latinos and Latinas inexorably become a more potent force in American politics, said Hinojosa, she doesn’t want to see them either taken for granted or written off.

That’s why, she said, a debate moderator who would have pressed for discussion on Latino issues would have served all viewers and voters well.

“We are living in an historic moment,” she said. “We have to own it.”

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