Other changes between 2000 and 2007 included more Latinos coming to Kentucky from other locations in the United States, such as Chicago and California, rather than directly from Latin America, because of safety concerns in those areas and the strong labor market in Kentucky. Another change was the gradual increase in the number of Latino families, as more families migrated together, and more women and children joined men already in the area. Counterintuitively, the larger presence of Latino women and children was probably a result of stricter enforcement at the United States-Mexico border: migrants could no longer depend on multiple crossings each year, and therefore they decided to unite their families in the north.
The rising number of families also raised issues about the children of undocumented migrants, many of whom had lived in Kentucky and attended local public schools for years by 2000. Without Social Security numbers they could not attend public universities in the state or apply for most financial aid programs. Because they had no great prospect of going to college, many dropped out of high school; especially in the years after 2001 some of these dropouts began to join groups of other disaffected youths. Los Angeles-style gangs had not yet entered the Bluegrass State, but clearly the potential existed. One bright spot for undocumented youths was the Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) in Lexington, which publicized an explicit policy of opening its doors to undocumented migrants in 2004, which led to an enrollment of more than 200 Latino students in 2007.3 A 2004 state law and a 2005 administrative regulation of the state Council on Postsecondary Education made official the policy that undocumented graduates of Kentucky high schools would be treated as state residents eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Four-year institutions then opened their doors to Latinos, with nine attending Kentucky State University and 120 at Northern Kentucky University in 2005. Both four-year institutions joined with BCTC in actively recruiting Latino students through the newly formed organization Educating Latinos for Kentucky’s Future.
With at least 65,000 Latinos in the state according to the Pew Hispanic Center and more than 83,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2005 Latinos made up between 1.5 percent and 2 percent of the state’s population.4
With the majority of these Latinos living in Lexington, Louisville, and the Cincinnati suburbs, it might be expected that Latinos would have started to come into their own politically. However, because of the large percentage of undocumented migrants in the state’s Latino population, in the period between
2000 and 2007 they found themselves an increasingly visible minority group that lacked even the beginnings of political power.5 Without official documentation, the majority of Kentucky Latinos found themselves in a difficult and often dangerous legal twilight. Without the right to vote, most Latinos had little traction with local officials; without residency papers, many feared going to the police when they were attacked or threatened; and many were victimized because of their perceived vulnerability.
Latinos had begun lobbying the municipal and state governments for recognition and support in the late 1990s. In Lexington, the Lexington Hispanic Association/Asociacion de Hispanos Unidos (AHU) and the Kentucky Migrant Network Coalition attracted the attention of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government in 1998. Mayor Pam Miller appointed the Lexington Hispanic Labor Task Force and followed its recommendations in hiring Abdon Ibarra as the city’s first liaison to the growing Latino population and in helping to fund a new Hispanic Initiative Network (HIN). The HIN was able to provide bilingual social workers and translators for Latino patients in the health care system, but its grant money dried up after three years, in 2003.
The most impressive political action by Kentucky Latinos occurred in 2006, when a new organization, the Kentucky Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, organized thousands of Kentucky Latinos to take part in the National Day of Action for Immigration Rights on April 10. Organizer Freddy Peralta, who collected signatures from 5,500 Latinos (a significant percentage of the total Kentucky Latino population) at the rally, saw it as a turning point in the struggle for immigrant rights and evidence of heightened political will among Kentucky’s Latinos. He seems to have been correct, for local politicians soon felt compelled to take stands on various immigrant issues.