The National Interest, November 1, 2013
America's changing demographics, long a delicate topic, have become an increasingly prominent part of national political debate. The subject's prominence was assured when President Barack Obama won reelection with less than 40 percent of the white vote in 2012. It quickly became conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney had antagonized Hispanic voters by proposing that illegal aliens engage in "self-deportation" and that the Republican Party was committing political suicide by catering to a shrinking white voter base. Leading Republican strategists such as Karl Rove urged the GOP to change course. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rove announced: "If the GOP leaves nonwhite voters to the Democrats, then its margins in safe congressional districts and red states will dwindle—not overnight, but over years and decades." Rove pointed to a Georgia county where a 339 percent increase in the Hispanic population was accompanied by a drop in the Republican share of the presidential vote—from 66.4 percent in 2000 to 51.2 percent in 2012.
One result of Obama's victory was to rejuvenate the cause of reforming U.S. immigration law. Within five months of Obama's second inauguration, the Senate approved legislation that would place eleven million illegal aliens on a "path to citizenship," and, in order to dampen demand for undocumented labor, would greatly increase the flow of legal immigrants and guest workers. The legislation would also increase spending to secure the border. The ensuing debate over immigration reform, like the postmortem on the presidential election, has been dominated by the theme of changing demographics. When Jorge Ramos, the news anchor for the country's largest Spanish-language broadcast network, was interviewed about the Senate bill on National Public Radio, he said:
If Latinos perceive that Republicans are to blame for the absence of immigration reform, I think Republicans are going to pay the price for that. . . . You know, the Hispanic population will triple to 150 million in less than 40 years. . . . Republicans better understand that this is a different country, that we are in the middle of a truly, truly demographic revolution. Latinos are changing the way we speak, the way we dance, the way we do politics in this country, the way we vote.
His partisan political analysis aside, Ramos was not wrong about the "demographic revolution." In 1950, European immigrants and their descendants made up nearly 90 percent of the U.S. population. Since then, "non-Hispanic whites," according to the 2010 census, have fallen to 64 percent of the population. The Census Bureau's "2012 National Population Projections" predicts that their share will drop below 50 percent in the 2040s.
Rove and Ramos speak as though this development were a law of nature. It is not. Instead, the laws of Congress, and their selective enforcement by the executive branch, have driven the demographic revolution. Though Hispanics certainly enjoy a higher birthrate than non-Hispanic whites—more than a third higher, according to the "2010 National Vital Statistics Report" of the Department of Health and Human Services—the demographic change has been propelled most by unprecedented levels of legal and illegal immigration in recent decades. The Department of Homeland Security's "2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics" reports that legal immigration increased from 320,000 to 1,030,000 per annum between the 1960s and the 2000s. Today, small nations like Haiti, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic send more immigrants than any European nation.
Based on these immigration and fertility trends, the "2012 National Population Projections" estimates that the "Hispanic-origin" population will nearly double from 17 percent of the population in 2012 to 31 percent in 2060. Buried in the government's projections is an even more profound observation, that "after 2020 the Hispanic population is projected to add more people to the United States every year than would all other race/ethnic groups combined." In other words, if current immigration and fertility trends continue, the United States will eventually become a majority-Hispanic nation, perhaps before the end of this century. In California, our most populous state, births to Hispanic mothers already outnumber births to all other ethnic groups combined. Texas, our second most populous state, will shortly follow suit. Ironically, while our current immigration policies are thought to increase diversity, in the long run they may simply replace one ethnic majority with another.
IMMIGRATION IS a complex subject, but the history of U.S. immigration law can be summarized in a single paragraph. From independence until the end of World War I, immigration was virtually unrestricted, with the exception of limits on immigration from a few countries (notably China) and on certain "undesirables" (e.g., prostitutes and mendicants). In the 1920s, immigration was harshly curtailed by imposing "quotas" on Eastern Hemisphere countries in proportion to the turn-of-the-century ethnic composition of the United States. The national quota system effectively discriminated against Asian immigration, and largely for that reason it was replaced in 1965 with the current system, which assigns the same numerical limit to every country (with extra slots for Canada and Mexico).
The 1965 law reserved most immigrant visas for aliens sponsored by a U.S. relative. If the system limited sponsorship to members of the family that produced the sponsor (parents and siblings) or of the family that the sponsor produced (spouse and children), the amount of immigration triggered by a single citizen would be limited. However, because relations from both families can be sponsored, a citizen can initiate an unending chain of visa eligibility: a naturalized immigrant might sponsor his parents, his unmarried siblings and a spouse; each of the siblings might sponsor a spouse from the home country; the spouses of the sponsor and his siblings might sponsor their own parents and unmarried siblings; and so on.
The 1965 legal-immigration reforms occurred just as migration patterns of illegal workers from Mexico began to shift, with more bringing their families and fewer returning home. In 1986, Congress enacted financial and criminal sanctions against employers who failed to request work-eligibility documents from new hires. To win the support of immigrant-advocacy groups and businesses with illegal aliens on their payrolls, approximately 2.8 million undocumented aliens were legalized.
In the meantime, the family-chain migration system instituted by the 1965 reforms had generated long waiting lists for visas. In 1990, Congress sought to shorten the wait with a 40 percent increase in the number of visas. Of course, as soon as the recipients of these additional visas became eligible to sponsor other relatives left behind, waiting lists would begin to grow again. As part of the 1990 law, Congress also mandated the formation of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform to recommend a longer-term solution.
Most of the commission's work was carried out by the National Academy of Sciences under the direction of Barbara Jordan (the first African American woman elected to Congress from the South), who was appointed to chair the commission by President Bill Clinton. Relying upon research by the National Academy of Sciences, the commission found that the high levels of immigration since the 1960s, partly fueled by family-chain migration, were depressing the wages of low-skilled Americans. The commission's 1997 report, "Becoming an American," proposed annual ceilings of four hundred thousand visas for spouses, children and parents of citizens and 150,000 visas for aliens with exceptional skills and refugees, effectively cutting legal immigration in half. As is often the case with recommendations of expert bipartisan commissions, nothing happened.
Although primarily tasked with reforming legal immigration, the Jordan commission also addressed the vexed issue of illegal immigration. The 1986 employer-sanctions provisions had proven ineffective given the ease of securing counterfeit work-eligibility documents, and within ten years there were even more illegal aliens in the United States than in 1986. The Jordan commission, for its part, concluded that another legalization program would only make matters worse and instead recommended that employers be required to verify each new employee's Social Security number by telephone or over the Internet.
This E-Verify system, although easy to use, has been resisted by business lobbyists, in part because employers are already required to furnish employee Social Security numbers to the Internal Revenue Service, which shares them with the Social Security Administration. Owing to bureaucratic politics within the executive branch and between congressional committees, this information is not shared with immigration-enforcement agencies, forcing employers to confirm the validity of the numbers a second time to avoid immigration penalties.
THROUGHOUT THE history of American immigration legislation, starting with pre–Revolutionary War laws on importing indentured servants and slaves, the paramount influence on the legislative process has been business interests. The avidity of business for more labor is obvious: it kept wages from rising and labor from organizing. Until the formation of national unions in the twentieth century, the labor interest was represented in the legislative process by those whom we would today call "progressives"—members of the middle and upper classes who opposed on moral grounds the use of child labor and immigrant workers to depress wages and break up unions. In 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered the following plea to attendees at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta:
To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted, I would repeat what I say to my own race: "Cast down your bucket where you are." Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your fireside.
Washington and other progressives were joined in opposition to unrestricted immigration by yesteryear's "social conservatives"—citizens who feared that an influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants would undermine the country's Protestant culture. However, even in combination, progressives and social conservatives were no match for the business interest, which time and again blocked popular legislation to control immigration.
Two developments tipped the scales in the early 1920s, leading to the single occasion in American history when Congress acted to reduce the total level of legal immigration. First, under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, himself an immigrant, the American Federation of Labor made an end to mass migration from Europe one of the key demands of the country's first nationally effective labor organization. Second, and probably of greater importance, anarchists and socialists began showing up among the postwar flood of immigrant workers into American cities. Fear of social and political instability moved enough businessmen into the restrictionist camp to enable passage of the 1920s quota legislation.
Today, as in the past, large-scale immigration is supported by business interests and opposed by most social conservatives. What is strikingly different today is the extent to which progressive forces, including congressional Democrats, civil-rights leaders and even segments of organized labor, have sided with big business in opposing most measures to restrict immigration. This loss of a restrictionist faction on the left to balance the open-borders faction on the right is key to understanding why a nation now confronted with falling water tables, a collapsing infrastructure, failing schools, declining wages and widespread unemployment is on the verge of sanctioning what amounts to the largest wave of legal immigration in American history.
When progressives initiated the 1965 reforms that triggered the current wave of mass migration, they were not deliberately aiming for greater diversity. On the contrary, Senator Edward Kennedy testified, "Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually." Senator Robert F. Kennedy argued that the elimination of quotas "can have no significant effect on the ethnic balance of the United States." They were wrong. But Ted Kennedy went on to embrace the ensuing demographic revolution, as have contemporary liberals like Joel Kotkin, who predicted in his 2010 book The Next 100 Million: America in 2050 that the "staggering amalgam of racial, ethnic, and religious groups" that we are destined to become would bring about "the construction of a new civilization." Amid the celebration, more conservative voices, such as Pat Buchanan in his 2011 Suicide of a Superpower, deplored the abandonment of our historic ethnic center of gravity, whose values and habits (notwithstanding many shortcomings) fostered political stability, economic success and individual freedom unparalleled in human history.
AS WRITERS on the left and the right debate whether white Americans should celebrate or deplore their impending minority status, they seldom reflect on the implications for Hispanic Americans of their impending majority status. In so large a group, one naturally encounters a remarkable range of talent and perspectives. However, an accumulating mound of data gathered by Hispanic scholars indicates that as much as half of the Hispanic population, far from forming the nucleus of a confident new middle class that will set a fresh tone for another American Century, are coalescing into a new underclass.
What most distinguishes the booming, immigration-driven Hispanic community from non-Hispanic whites (and also from the much smaller but equally booming Asian immigrant community) is uneven educational attainment, a handicap that stubbornly persists from generation to generation. In 2008, UCLA sociology professors Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz completed an exhaustive analysis of intergenerational progress among Mexican Americans entitled Generations of Exclusion. Not surprisingly, they reported that first-generation Hispanic citizens outperformed their parents, who often had not completed grade school, but educational progress in the second, third and even fourth generations had been static or even reversed itself. Among other striking conclusions, the professors also found that more than a quarter of fourth-generationMexican Americans were not graduating from high school and that between the third and fourth generations the percentage graduating from college had declined from 14 percent to 6 percent (compared to 35 percent of non-Hispanic whites). In 2010, Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, codirectors of immigration studies at NYU, documented in Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society the extraordinary challenges of educating children in the many schools where Hispanic and other immigrant children are now a majority of the student body, including lack of parental support, ethnic self-segregation and fear of violence.
This educational deficit has had deleterious consequences, as measured by the government's "National Vital Statistics Reports" and its periodic "American Community Survey" and "Current Population Survey."According to these sources, Hispanic immigrants are significantly more likely to live in poverty and to lack health insurance than their white native counterparts. The likelihood that poverty will pass to the next generation is high, since half of Hispanic children are born out of wedlock. What's more, in 2010 University of California professors Patricia Gandara and Frances Contreras argued in The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies that encouraging reports of higher Hispanic rates of graduation from high school often did not account for Hispanics who never entered high school in the first place. They warned that "as a group, Latino students today perform academically at levels that will consign them to lives as members of a permanent underclass in American society. Moreover, their situation is projected to worsen over time."
Academic stagnation in so large and rapidly expanding a segment of the population has some sobering implications for our nation's standing in the world. The fact that U.S. students score worse on standardized tests than their peers in many foreign countries is widely known. ExxonMobil's "Let's Solve This"campaign warns that "the Program for International Students Assessment [PISA] ranked U.S. students 17th in the world in science and 25th in math." PISA is a project of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that tests fifteen-year-olds in over sixty countries every three years. The 2009 test results are summarized in the U.S. Department of Education's "Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context," which includes an ethnic breakdown of U.S. scores.
Few educators will be surprised that Asian Americans had the highest PISA scores, followed by non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics and African Americans, in that order. More will be surprised to learn that in only one Asian location (the city of Shanghai) did students score better than Asian Americans, in only one European country (Finland) did they score better than non-Hispanic whites and in no Latin American country did students score better than Hispanic Americans. African American students also scored higher than students in the only African country that participated in PISA (Tunisia). Thus, although U.S. students on averagerank below the top-scoring Asian and European countries in the PISA tests, this says less about the relative quality of our educational system than about the relative diversity of our student population.
The academic performance of Hispanics as a group compared to other ethnic groups is not easy to explain, indeed no easier to explain than the differing achievement levels of, say, Korean Americans compared to Filipino Americans or Jews compared to gentiles. However, U.S. immigration policies must shoulder some of the blame. The problem with our policies is not that we admit too many immigrants from countries with low PISA scores; the problem is that our immigration law discriminates across the board against talent and achievement.
The experience of Cuban immigration is enlightening. Prior to the 1980 Mariel boatlift, most Cuban immigrants were middle-class refugees from Fidel Castro's Communist regime. On average, these Hispanic immigrants have flourished, as have their children and grandchildren. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, and "diversity admissions" were just getting off the ground, one of my new Hispanic classmates told me that he and other students filling the "Hispanic quota" were amused to discover that most of them were the offspring of well-to-do Cuban professionals, not the children of underprivileged Mexican Americans.
But Cuba was not unique in having a large, well-educated middle class. Mexico, the source of most Hispanic immigrants, has millions of successful entrepreneurs and professionals who have embraced an ethic of work and learning and who are prospering within the limits imposed by crime, corruption and other local impediments to upward mobility. Most under the age of fifty are fluent or nearly fluent in English and (in my experience) are more cultured than their American counterparts. Had the U.S. government deliberately set out to increase the Hispanic share of the U.S. population, it could easily have done so by recruiting hundreds of thousands of the "best and brightest" from Mexico and other neighbors to the south.
NOT EVERYONE agrees that the disheartening statistics on Hispanic education and family formation are harbingers of a troubled future. In 2001, neoconservative journalist Michael Barone predicted in The New Americans that today's Hispanic immigrants would repeat the triumphant march into the American middle class of the Italian immigrants who disembarked at Ellis Island a century earlier. I agree with Barone that Hispanic immigrants, imbued with many of the Latin, Catholic traditions of the earlier Italian immigrants, could do worse than to emulate the achievements of their antecedents. The stretch of land between Boston and Baltimore is thick with Roman Catholic cathedrals, universities and hospitals established (and sometimes hand constructed) by Italian, Irish and Polish newcomers.
Unfortunately, within the contemporary Hispanic community there has been comparably less building of institutions. This may be due to bad timing. The parochial schools that drilled so many Catholic immigrant children in the rigors of their religion and the mores of Anglo-Protestant culture are fewer in number and cost more to attend, mainly because the ranks of nuns who staffed them in exchange for food and shelter have been depleted. More importantly, the twentieth-century revolution in automated manufacturing that enabled Ellis Island immigrants as well as their native-born contemporaries to aspire to a middle-class lifestyle without a university degree has come to a close and been succeeded by revolutions in transportation and information processing that have globalized the economy.
The dual forces of rapid globalization and mass immigration have stunted upward mobility in the United States and contributed to the much-lamented growth in the wealth and income gap. In a globalized, free-trading economy, any product or service that can be made or performed by a low-paid worker will be imported from abroad, unless it cannot be imported at all. Because of globalization, the number of U.S. residents who can earn a good living competing in the market for importable goods and services is shrinking; because of immigration, the number of U.S. residents who must earn their living providing retail, building-maintenance, nursing, carpentry and other nonimportable services to the globally competitive minority is expanding. If the number of people who can afford to pay for a service is declining, and the number of people who earn their living by providing that service is growing, the law of supply and demand mandates that the latter's wages must fall.
The collapse of real wages for Americans without a college degree has had a devastating impact on family formation, and not just within the Hispanic community. Last year, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010
, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute tracked the growth of "lower class" whites from 8 percent of the total white population in the late 1960s to over 20 percent in 2010. The two largest segments of this expanding lower-class population were single mothers and men who could not make enough money to keep two adults out of poverty.
Acknowledgement of these realities has been generally absent from the debate. In a rare exception, T. A. Frank argued in the New Republic earlier this year that liberals should oppose the immigration-reform bill currently under consideration for reasons similar to those described above. But he lamented that this view was likely to be dismissed out of hand as retrograde and unthinking: "The consensus among decent people in favor of the immigration bill making its way through Congress is so firm that expressing dissent feels a bit like taking the floor to suggest we chop down the Redwood National Park."
To the injuries wrought by uncontrolled immigration on Americans of every race and ethnicity has been added for Hispanic Americans the unique insult of losing their own voice. Traditional Hispanic groups such as the League of Latin American Citizens, run by dues-paying members and advocating patriotism and assimilation, have been nearly driven out of business by foundation-funded organizations. For some of these advocacy groups, the Hispanic experience was foreshadowed not by the uplifting saga of Ellis Island immigrants, but instead by the struggles of African Americans. From that perspective, enforcing our immigration laws is just another form of discrimination.
The simple fact is that in a globalized society, mass immigration serves to depress the wages of working-class citizens—both natives and immigrants—and thereby to swell an underclass whose problems seem close to irremediable by our society and its government. As Frank observed, this may be "good for wealthy Americans," but it's an "immense blow to America's working class and poor." To say this is not a value judgment on those who seek to come to the United States. We, not they, are to blame for our out-of-date, weakly enforced immigration policies. The country and the world have changed significantly over the past century, and with these changes America's ability to successfully absorb large numbers of low-skilled immigrants has decreased sharply. But until this issue can be examined in a cool and dispassionate manner, the shadow cast by a forest of myths will continue to occlude a rational debate about immigration into America.