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Senior White House officials hear from Hispanic community at Tampa summit

Maria Avalos of Tampa waits in line to speak during the White House Hispanic Community Action Summit at the University of Tampa. It’s the 13th summit held by the White House in the past year.
Maria Avalos of Tampa waits in line to speak during the White House Hispanic Community Action Summit at the University of Tampa. It’s the 13th summit held by the White House in the past year.
Published Feb. 4, 2012

TAMPA — More than a dozen senior White House officials and policy makers met Friday with Hispanic leaders and community members in Tampa to discuss issues affecting the area's Latino population.

Education, the economy and immigration were at the top of the list for those attending the White House Hispanic Community Action Summit at the University of Tampa. It's the 13th summit held by the White House in the past year.

The visit is one of a number of recent appearances by cabinet-level officials across the nation following President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address last month. Highlighting the president's proposals, officials on Friday expanded on portions of the recent speech.

The president's announcement of lower tax rates for companies that manufacture in the United States could benefit the Hispanic community, said Francisco Sánchez, undersecretary for International Trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers live outside the U.S.," Sánchez said. "We've got to expand and, in so many ways, the Latino community should be at the forefront of expansion."

He touted the community's multilingual abilities and connections with Latin American countries as advantages in the export industry.

Education is another priority of the Obama administration, said José Rico, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

"Only 13 percent of Hispanic adults hold degrees," Rico said. More than half of Hispanic students drop out of high school, he added.

But there's good news, too.

"For the first time ever, Hispanics are the largest minority of students enrolled in colleges or universities," he said.

Not all Hispanics are able to go to college, though, said Joseph Anastasio, a summit attendee and diversity consultant at the University of South Florida's Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity.

"We have students graduating as valedictorians of their high schools, who, because they are undocumented, can't go to USF because they have to pay international student rates," he said.

Many are also concerned about immigration reform.

"We've seen the harsh laws passed in Alabama and Arizona and other states," said Esther Olavarria, a counselor to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "As president, (Obama) can't stop them, but he can challenge them."

The administration is currently looking at better ways for Homeland Security to prioritize the deportation process so those individuals who are considered security or safety concerns are removed before those who have come to this country for work, Olavarria said.

Housing is another issue affecting the Hispanic community, said Sylvia Alvarez, the executive director of the Housing and Education Alliance of Tampa.

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Alvarez attended the summit in the hopes of bringing the foreclosure crisis in Florida, which she said has hit immigrants especially hard, to the attention of officials.

"Immigrants come here to get a piece of the American dream," Alvarez said. "The American dream is turning into a nightmare."

For Maria Pinzon, the executive director of the Hispanic Services Council in Tampa, attending the summit was all about increasing engagement within the Hispanic community.

"I want to know what we are doing that's right, what could we be doing better," she said. "How can we be more engaged?"

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