Students release new research on Latinos in Washington State ahead of 2012 elections

WALLA WALLA, Wash., Feb. 16, 2012 – Whitman College students today have released their research findings on five key issues vital to the Latino community and all residents of Washington State.

The issues are: voting rights, immigrant integration, education for English language learners, cultural competency in public schools and access to human services.

The students conducted this research as part of a year-long campus-community research partnership called “The State of the State for Washington Latinos.” Led by Professor Paul Apostolidis, Judge T. Paul Chair of Political Science, the course combines intensive research with community outreach to propel students far beyond the classroom.

“It's become common knowledge that this year the road to the White House goes through Latino communities in key battleground states,” Apostolidis said. “So the question the candidates are pondering is: what do Latinos want in 2012? Here at Whitman, we also want to know: what do Latinos and other minority groups need to be able to participate fully in our state and local communities?”

To help answer that question, students spent their fall semester conducting research in the Walla Walla Valley and beyond. One group examined the impact of the controversial immigration enforcement initiative called Secure Communities, which was implemented in Yakima, Franklin, Benton and Walla Walla counties in 2011.

“Secure Communities was implemented in this region just this past summer, so our research is the first of its kind in Eastern Washington,” said Spencer May, a junior biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology major from Napa, Calif. “It hopefully will provide a valuable starting point for public debate, community dialogue and policy initiatives in these counties.”

All findings were presented at a news conference on campus Feb. 16, 2012. Video footage of the event is available for viewing through the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Here is a summary of the research effort:

  • The History and Lessons of Latino Under-Representation in Washington State: Students partnered with the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University Law School to investigate the history of Latino political representation in Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Okanogan, Skagit, Walla Walla and Yakima counties from 1983 to 2011. During this time period, Latinos have comprised 21.6 percent of the population in these counties but have been elected to only 2.7 percent of their city council and school district seats. New state voting rights protections, bilingual outreach, and leadership development hold the promise of change for Latinos and other minority groups, and of democratic renewal for all.  
  • The Impact of Secure Communities on Latinos and Local Law Enforcement in Eastern and Central Washington: Students collaborated with regional non-profit OneAmerica to assess the impact of this new initiative, which aims to increase cooperation between local law enforcement and the federal government to identify and deport undocumented immigrants. They found that fear of deportation has made undocumented immigrants less likely to contact police in instances such as domestic violence, putting them at increased risk for abuse. County jails, researchers recommend, should only allow federal detention of those arrested on criminal charges.

  • Poverty, Community Needs and Service Access in Walla Walla: In partnership with the local organization Commitment 2 Community, students looked at how best to equip low-income residents to access human services. They found that personal relationships between residents and neighborhood-based organizations helped those in need access social services, but identified education as influencing both income and access to human services, with Latinos reporting disproportionately low high school graduation rates. Neighborhood-based organizations can nurture those person-to-person contacts through which people find help, Meanwhile, state leaders must preserve vital utility, food and medical services.

  • Providing Quality Education for All: Cultural Competency in Walla Walla Public Schools: Washington’s Legislature has identified improving schools’ abilities to handle cultural difference as a key strategy to reduce the achievement gap. Yet Whitman researchers who partnered with the Walla Walla Public Schools found no official policies promoting a commitment to cultural competency at Blue Ridge Elementary School, Garrison Middle School or Walla Walla High School, the three schools with the highest percentage of Latino students in the district. Latino students reported such barriers to academic success as discrimination from other students, a lack of racial and cultural diversity among staff members and marginalization in Advanced Placement classes. Cultural competency training and strong leadership from principals, this report concludes, are the keys to making schools work for all kids and families.
  • Lost in Translation? English Language Learners in Walla Walla Public Schools: Also focusing on Blue Ridge, Garrison and Wa-Hi, in partnership with the WWPS, Whitman students interviewed teachers, parents, students and staff, as well as school and district administrators, about programs for English language learners. Their findings show widespread support for the Dual Language program, but reveal that ELL students still identify their language barrier as the primary obstacle to their academic performance. Parents also struggle to fully participate in their children’s education due to linguistic and socioeconomic barriers. Dual-language immersion programs like those now in place in Walla Walla can boost all students’ success in school, this report concludes.

State of the State has continued to gain momentum since its inception in 2005. In 2008, a report by Ian Warner ’07 made headlines when it documented how the City Council in Sunnyside, Wash., was in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Despite having a Latino population of more than 70 percent, the town’s at-large system for elections was producing racially polarized voting patterns that in effect kept Latinos off the council. Warner’s findings were brought to the attention of the federal Department of Justice, and Sunnyside changed its local election rules to a partially districted system.

“One of the real challenges and opportunities of this project is for students to become aware that the work they’re doing vastly transcends the college campus and can shape their future careers,” Apostolidis said. 

In October, students traveled to Seattle to participate in the fifth annual National Immigrant Integration Conference hosted by OneAmerica. As the only organized student group in attendance, students not only participated in sessions with justice advocates, religious groups and politicians, but also networked with other scholars and organization leaders to share their own findings. They also acted as the official scribes, taking notes on the proceedings.

More recently, the Yakima Valley Community Foundation provided an $11,000 grant to help fund State of the State’s research and outreach agenda, on top of a $3,000 grant the project received last fall. From 2008-2010, the project received over $30,000 in funding through Princeton University’s National Community-Based Research Networking Initiative.

Also in conjunction with the State of the State program, Pramila Jayapal, founder and executive director of OneAmerica, visited Whitman in November and gave a stirring talk on “Building a Stronger Democracy: Immigration, Immigrants and the Future of America.”

“State of the State offers an experience that you can’t get from another class,” said Lauren McCullough, a senior politics major from Wilsonville, Ore. “Not only are we participating in masters’ level research, but this semester we’ll be doing outreach about our work to legislators, leaders and community members. In other words, we’re doing research that really matters.”

Gillian Frew '11