Our Hispanic predicament

Lack of US assimilation despite economic progress

In Los Angeles this past February, a crowd of over 91,000 fans, made up predominantly of Latinos who live and work in southern California, gathered for the Gold Cup soccer match between the Mexican and U.S. national teams. They did not come to root for the home team. Rather, they booed and whistled through the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, and then proceeded to pelt the players on the American team with food, bottles, and cans.

The incident provoked days of coverage in the local media, most of it antagonistic to the Latino community. In one of dozens of letters that appeared in Los Angeles newspapers, a Mexican-American fan himself complained bitterly that he and his young son had been sprayed with beer and soda by fellow Latinos for having had the temerity to display a small American flag. A player on the U.S. team noted that he and his teammates had been treated far better when they played in Mexico City than at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Dozens of other letter-writers expressed their disgust with Hispanic immigrants who were happy to take advantage of American jobs, education, medical care, and welfare benefits while spitting on American symbols.

Were this mini-riot and the reaction to it an aberration, or a glimpse into a disturbing future? To put it broadly, can the United States successfully assimilate its large and rapidly growing Hispanic population, or are Hispanics becoming a permanently aggrieved and permanently volatile minority? These questions are already creating intense anxiety in California, home to some three million Hispanic immigrants as well as nearly seven million U.S.-born Hispanics, and they will increasingly agitate communities elsewhere. By the year 2008, Hispanic-Americans, currently 28.5 million strong, will outnumber blacks and form the single largest minority group in the country. In 50 years, if trends hold, they will comprise one-quarter of the total U.S. population. Not since the first decades of this century has the United States experienced so intense and far-reaching a demographic shift.

The implications of this shift have alarmed opinion-makers and policy analysts on both the Left and the Right, provoking calls for an immediate curtailment of immigration from Latin countries. There is, of course, nothing new in this: Spanish speaking immigrants are hardly the first to stir apprehension in the hearts of native-born Americans. It was once a commonplace of elite opinion that the millions of Jews and other Europeans who were pouring into American ports at an unprecedented rate would not only fail to assimilate but would become, as a Harvard economics professor warned in a full-page New York Times advertisement in 1913, “a menace to Anglo-Saxon civilization.”

But if it is tempting to dismiss today’s warnings as no less fallacious and misplaced, the fact is that our situation is far more complicated than it was 75 years ago, and our predicament correspondingly more serious. Among other things, the United States itself has changed dramatically over the course of the century; while it remains a magnet with great powers of attraction to immigrants of all kinds, its ability to absorb them may have declined.

One problem in getting hold of the current situation is that the people whom the federal government labels as Hispanic hail from 24 separate national points of origin, have lived here for disparate amounts of time, and occupy a wide range of positions on the ladder of social and economic achievement. By far the largest sector comprises the eighteen million Hispanics of Mexican ancestry, of whom, it is important to remember, more than ten million can trace their roots in the United States for at least two generations. Another group of four million is made up of immigrants from Central America–mostly El Salvador and Guatemala–and South America, followed numerically by the three million Puerto Ricans who live on the U.S. mainland. Cubans–including the generation of refugees who fled the Communist takeover of the island in 1959, their children and grandchildren, and the more recent refugees of the 1980’s and 90’s–form the smallest group at 1.1 million. Finally, the federal government counts another two million persons as “other Hispanics,” a hodgepodge that includes everyone from Dominicans to Spaniards.

In education and earnings, there is good news and bad about this remarkably diverse collection of people, but even the bad news is not as bad as it is often portrayed. Thus, most Hispanics of South American and Cuban descent (with the exception of recent Cuban refugees and recent immigrants from some of the Andean
countries) are virtually indistinguishable in economic terms from the white American population at large. The real distress is in the Puerto Rican community, where a large number of people display a profile closer to poor American blacks than to any other Hispanic group, living in single, female-headed households, bearing children out-of-wedlock, and failing to participate in any way in the labor force.

This is in part a reflection of the unique status of Puerto Ricans in the United States: citizens by birth, they can migrate at will from the island to the mainland, where they are automatically eligible for the full range of welfare benefits. In New York, where one-third of all mainland Puerto Ricans live, their welfare rate is higher than that of any other group; already, generations have been mired in a destructive culture of dependency. Yet even so, circumstances vary: Puerto Ricans, too, are not monolithic, and earnings among those who are gainfully employed are higher than in any other Hispanic group except Cubans. Puerto Ricans also complete high school at rates similar to whites and significantly higher than Hispanics of Central American, Mexican, or Dominican origin.

While the plight of Puerto Ricans–and to some extent Dominicans, who share some of the same syndromes of dependency but are also more likely to be in the labor force or to be acting as entrepreneurs–represents a severe challenge in the Northeast, the bigger challenge nationally is posed by the enormous population of Hispanics of Mexican descent throughout the West and Southwest and in places like Chicago in the Midwest. Here again the picture is a mixed one.

Until a decade or so ago, Mexican-Americans trailed far behind the general populace according to most social and economic indicators. Contributing significantly to the lag was simple discrimination. Unlike American blacks, Mexican-Americans were never legally prohibited from voting or attending school with whites, but widespread anti Mexican sentiment meant that, as a practical matter, the door to better jobs and better neighborhoods was closed to them. Conditions began to improve with passage of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960’s, but then another circumstance intervened to slow down progress.

Thanks to a 1965 change in immigration law that henceforth gave priority to relatives of persons already living in the United States, a tide of poorly educated, non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants began to wash over the towns and cities where established Mexican-Americans had lived for decades. These new arrivals, their ranks swollen still further by substantial numbers of illegal immigrants, exerted a marked downward pressure on wages in California in the 1970’s, especially for low-skilled Mexican-American males. Not until the 1980’s, according to a recent study by Kevin F. McCarthy and Georges Vernez, did wages resume a healthy growth. But in that decade, and despite the continued arrival of new immigrants, Mexican-Americans made gains according to every measure of social and economic well-being-including education, an area in which this group has traditionally stood far behind others.

What is true of Mexican-Americans, at least those well established in the U.S., is true of

immigrant Hispanics on the whole. A recent study by Gregory Rodriguez of a five-county region in southern California showed about half of U.S.-born Hispanics and 34 percent of foreign born Hispanics living in middle-class households in 1990; the latter figure in particular marks a significant improvement from earlier years. This upward mobility is driven primarily by the fact that families work together and pool their resources to get ahead–the same path classically taken by earlier immigrant groups from Europe.

Except among Puerto Ricans and the most recent immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere, then, the real problem in the Hispanic community is not a lack of economic mobility. The real problem is that, whatever the degree of their economic success, only haltingly are Hispanic immigrants becoming part of the social, political, and cultural fabric of the U.S. The anecdotal and statistical evidence attesting to this fact is, unfortunately, abundant, especially in relation to Mexicans.

One key indicator is the rate of naturalization. Even after nearly twenty years of U.S. residence, it seems that fewer than one in five Mexican-Americans chooses to acquire American citizenship. Another indicator is language. As of 1990, three-quarters of Mexican immigrants who arrived in the 1980’s still spoke little or no English. About one quarter of all Mexican immigrants have not learned to speak English even after decades in the U.S.

What these numbers reveal is that many Mexicans straddle two worlds. While living and working in the United States, they listen to news from their native country on Spanish-language radio and television stations, make frequent visits across the border, and send money back home to the tune of $ 4 billion a year. Once they have gained some financial security, they hope to return to Mexico permanently.

As if to muddy the waters still further, the Mexican government has begun to take an aggressive interest in its former nationals. Its most visible step thus far has been to adopt a law allowing emigres and their offspring to apply for an attenuated form of Mexican citizenship, including the right to own property in Mexico and to hold a Mexican passport. As soon as the law went into effect this past March, hundreds lined up at consulates throughout the United States to apply for the new status, many simply as a way of asserting their Mexican identity. As one applicant proudly proclaimed, “Mexico is our roots after all. We have been in this country a long time, but we can’t forget where we came from.”

If second-generation Mexican-Americans fail fully to assimilate, however, it will not be primarily on account of the actions of the Mexican government. America’s family-reunification policy, in place since 1965, virtually guarantees chat Latino immigration will increase yearly. Although Congress has fiddled with current immigration quotas by enlarging the number of skills-based slots, and adding preferences for so-called “diversity immigrants” (mostly from Africa and Eastern Europe), the proportion of Mexicans continues to grow. Each year, on average, 100,000 Mexicans arrive legally, and many more illegally.

This constant influx from a single country is unprecedented in American history, and is unquestionably a factor inhibiting the successful assimilation of Mexicans already here. Although politicians are wary of addressing the issue directly, for fear of being called racist, the irony is chat both recent immigrants and America itself would have much to gain if fewer Latinos were admitted, allowing time for those here to learn English, improve their skills, and become Americanized.

Still, the single greatest threat to the assimilation of Hispanics is not U.S. immigration policy but U.S. education policy: specifically, the entrenched requirement of bilingual instruction in American public schools. Initiated as a temporary program to assist children in their native language while they were learning English, bilingual education now traps hundreds of thousands if not millions of Hispanics in classes where–for years on end–the instruction is almost entirely in Spanish. So rigidly is the law carried out chat even children who already speak English are compelled to enter bilingual courses if they score poorly on standardized tests and live in families in which at least one family member speaks Spanish. The predictable consequence is that English–the language of the workplace and an essential tool for advancement–is never effectively learned.

A particularly shocking aspect of bilingual education is chat Hispanic youngsters are virtually the only group of non-English-speakers who have been subjected to it; with rare exceptions, children from ocher language groups are immersed immediately in English or provided with English-as-a-second-language instruction from the moment they enter public schools. Even more scandalous is the Department of Education’s insistence on bilingual education despite a complete absence of empirical evidence showing chat it does any good at all.

It is true chat bilingual education has the support of most Hispanic advocacy organizations, to whose members it brings a steady stream of jobs. But Hispanic parents themselves are far less enthusiastic. A 1995 poll conducted by the Center for Equal Opportunity showed overwhelming support for instruction in English as quickly as possible. Two-thirds of the parents surveyed, in fact, wanted full English-language immersion for their children. Californians will have an opportunity this month to vote on a ballot initiative that will sharply curtail if not effectively eliminate bilingual education in that state. Although Latino politicians and organizations, backed by the Clinton administration, have geared up to lobby against it, public-opinion surveys show that a majority of Hispanics favor the initiative.

Important as is the task of teaching Hispanic children English, far more is at stake in this debate than effective pedagogy. The central question is whether the public schools can serve, as they have done in the past, as the main instrument of assimilation for the millions of Hispanic youngsters who now attend them. In this regard, the current fascination with multiculturalism and diversity in public education bodes ill indeed. America’s elites are themselves confused today about what it means to be an American, let alone about whether it is desirable for those who immigrate here to consider themselves part of what used to be regarded as a common culture. Is it any wonder that newcomers are moving more slowly to embrace an American identity, especially if they happen to be Mexicans whose homeland is nearby and who encounter so many fellow nationals in their day-to-day lives?

Paradoxical as it may seem in light of America’s grip on popular culture throughout the world, the barriers to cultural assimilation within the United States are more formidable today than at practically any other time in American history. These barriers, in large measure, are ones we have erected ourselves. If Mexican-Americans, even as they move up the ladder of social and economic success, continue to cheer Mexico’s soccer team and jeer the United States’, our own failures of national self-respect will carry the lion’s share on the blame.

Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C., and the author of Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Assimilation.

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