Summer 2007

How America Is Changing: The Brave New Latino World

N C Aizenman

Gainesville, Georgia is the sort of place Americans picture when they speak of the South.” A community of about 102,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this is a town where fathers take their sons deer hunting, where mothers call out to each other in the supermarket in cheerful Southern drawls, and where people’s eyes light up with affection at the mention of President George W. Bush. Though the highways leading out of town have been colonized by the usual suburban sprawl of Home Depot, PetSmart and OfficeMax big-box stores, the central square retains a tranquil feel — with clothing boutiques and cafes ringing a tall statue dedicated to Our Confederate Soldiers.”

But drive out to the industrial strip where Mexican poultry and construction workers first began settling about a decade ago and you get a glimpse of how immigration is transforming even such previously untouched corners of America. Pastel-colored signs identify the Tres Amigos launderette, the Flor de Jalisco grocery, the Mejor de Michoacan ice cream shop, and the Iglesia Adventista del Septimo Dia. Coffee-skinned customers crowd the parking lots, chatting in Spanish while they wait to buy spiced beef tacos from roadside stalls. More than 1,000 miles north of the border, you could almost be in Mexico. The tsunami of immigration now cresting across the Gainesvilles of America is hardly the first to wash over what is after all a nation built on immigration. But four factors set it apart from previous waves and suggest its consequences will be even more profound. First is the sheer number of newcomers to the United States since Congress passed a 1965 law lifting strict rules that had all but eliminated immigration since the 1920s. Until then, the high water mark had been the 30-year period from 1891 to 1920, when more than 18 million foreigners reached U.S. shores. That record was shattered in the 26 years from 1971 to 2005 — when more than 27 million foreigners legally immigrated to the United States along with roughly 12 million migrants currently in the country illegally. And while the national quota system introduced in 1925 brought the earlier immigrant flow to an abrupt halt, the current flood shows no sign of abating — with roughly 1.2 million foreigners (including both legal and illegal immigrants) joining the population each year.

Latino surge

Of course, the growth of the overall U.S. population means that foreign-born individuals still account for a relatively limited proportion of residents—about 12 percent today compared to nearly 15 percent a century ago. However their impact has been magnified by the second distinguishing trend: the extraordinary concentration of newcomers from Mexico and other Latin American nations.

While large numbers of Germans and Irish arrived en masse at various points during the 1800s, by the early 1900s, immigrants came from a much broader mix of nations, including Italy, Austro-Hungary, Sweden, Russia and Poland as well as Germany and Ireland. To some extent the current immigrant population is also marked by diversity—though this time the top senders are overwhelmingly non-European nations such as the Philippines, China, India, parts of the Caribbean, and Africa. Still, the number of immigrants from those places is dwarfed by the influx of Mexicans, who now account for 31 percent of the foreign-born population. By comparison, the next largest single national group, Filipinos, account for less than 5 percent of foreign-born residents. Add in all other Latin American immigrants, and Hispanics account for more than half of the foreign born.

It seems hard to overstate the potential ramifications of this development. At the very least it implies that a major Latinization of American culture is in store. Indeed, the nation already experienced its first significant identity shift in 2003, when the Census Bureau announced that Hispanics (including both immigrants and U.S. born residents) had surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group. Now accounting for 15 percent of US residents, their numbers continue to grow at a far faster rate than the overall population.

In places where Latinos have reached critical mass few corners of daily life have gone untouched. Catholic churches that once struggled to fill their pews have been saved by a surge of Latino immigrant parishioners, and have adapted to them by holding Spanish-language masses and embracing the charismatic worship style popularized in Latin America. Government agencies, supermarkets, and banks offer nearly all of their services in Spanish. And an entire industry of Spanish-language music, television, and radio shows have emerged to rival their English-language competition in popularity.

The influence of such outlets was starkly illustrated in March 2006, when Spanish-language radio host Eduardo El Piolin” Sotelo—star of America’s top-rated morning show—almost single-handedly convinced 500,000 listeners to show up for a pro-immigration rally in Los Angeles that the English-language news media was barely aware was being planned.

The rise of this almost parallel Spanish-language subculture has fueled anxieties that Mexican and other Latin American immigrants will feel little need to learn English or otherwise assimilate, resulting in a balkanized nation. To some extent such fears appear as over-blown as 19th century claims that Germans, Italians, and Irish immigrants—who also had their own newspapers, shops, and social clubs—were somehow congenitally incapable of becoming American. Certainly, plenty of studies have found that by the third generation few Mexican-Americans know how to speak Spanish, let alone desire to.

Rough assimilation

But there are also unique aspects to the experience of Latino immigrants that suggest their path to assimilation may prove less smooth. For one thing, while, like their European predecessors, Hispanic immigrants are primarily low-skilled, the economy they are entering is now much less so. Manufacturing jobs that offered earlier newcomers and their children an entrée to the middle class with only a high school education have been replaced with less well-paying or secure service jobs.

Where previous immigrant groups took three or more generations to get a college degree, Latinos must do so in one generation or risk getting trapped in a cycle of poverty that lasts for generations.

Mexican and other Latin American immigrants’ proximity to their original countries has also made it easier for them to remain deeply engaged with life back home. Millions spend their savings to build retirement houses in their hometowns, or form social clubs to raise funds for schools and churches there. The cash infusion has been a lifeline for city slums and impoverished rural outposts across Mexico and Central America. But even immigrant advocates worry that it has siphoned off energy and resources that could be invested to improve the lot of immigrants in the United States.

An even greater challenge to assimilation is the third unprecedented characteristic of today’s immigrant population: Nearly one-third of them are in the country illegally. Of these 80 percent are Latino. Their presence is largely the result of a gross mismatch between the United States’ enormous appetite for low-skilled immigrant workers and the paltry number of legal permits it offers them. Despite unemployment rates that have hovered around 6 percent or less for more than a decade, only about 5,000 legal permanent resident visas and less than 100,000 temporary work permits per year are available for low-skilled non-agricultural workers. During the late 19th and early 20th century, by contrast, virtually the only thing European immigrants had to do to gain entry was show up.

Their lack of legal status saddles these modern-day immigrants with thousands of dollars in debt to smugglers and false document providers, and discourages them from venturing into the mainstream society or setting down long term roots. It also deepens the cultural chasm that separates them from U.S.-born citizens already leery of being overtaken by an impoverished, alien culture. Where illegal immigrants generally consider the act of sneaking into the United States to be about as sinful as breaking the speed limit while you drive a sick child to the emergency room, millions of Americans take it as evidence of a fundamental disrespect for the rule of law that is unlikely to be limited to a one-time offense.

Beyond the gateways

Compounding the political ramifications of this rift is the fourth, and possibly most nation-altering shift in modern immigration patterns: the dispersal of the newcomers beyond the six historic gateway states of California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois and Texas, to an enormous array of communities in the South, West, and Midwest with no prior experience of Latino immigration. Since 1990, the foreign-born population of 25 of these states has already doubled. In six other states the Latino population has more than tripled. The sense of dislocation and alarm felt by longtime residents of such places helps explain why polls show that while a slim majority of Americans support offering illegal immigrants a path to legalization, those who oppose the idea feel far more strongly about it. That sentiment helped seal defeat for Bush’s last effort at immigration reform this Spring.

Fueled by conservative talk radio hosts, tens of thousands of first time activists bombarded their senators with phone calls and e‑mails decrying a compromise bill negotiated by the administration and a team of Democratic and Republican senators as an unacceptable amnesty for law-breakers—prompting even some Republicans who had crafted the measure to run for cover. And in Washington circles the prospect of having another go at immigration reform is now considered about as appealing as going in for a root canal.

The politicians’ reluctance is hardly surprising given how weak Latinos’ political strength remains compared to their numerical presence. A third is simply too young to vote, another third has not yet gained citizenship. And of the remaining third that are eligible, only about 18 percent are registered, and only 12 to 14 percent turn out at the polls. So Latino voters are unlikely to play a decisive a role in the 2008 elections.

But time is very much on the Latinos’ side—particularly given their increasing numbers in key electoral swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona – and the long term political impact may be considerable. As Bush recognized during his first run for office, the social conservatism common to Latino immigrants might have made them a natural constituency for the Republican party. But the largely-Republican dominated campaign against immigration reform this Spring has led many Latinos to conclude that the party is irredeemably hostile to them.

Although it may take years, even decades, for enough Latinos to naturalize and register to vote in sufficient numbers to act on that lesson, they are unlikely to forget it while they await their chance. Whatever the case, it seems clear that the day is not too distant when the unthinkable will finally happen: Latino voters will choose the next American president.

N C Aizenman writes about immigration for The Washington Post. She is a former Executive Editor of The New Republic and Associate Producer for CNN.