Events

The Hispanic Challenge? What We Know About Latino Immigration

March 29, 2004 // 2:00pm4:30pm

Demetrios G. Papademtriou, Migration Policy Institute; Philippa Strum, Division of United States Studies, Woodrow Wilson Center; Roberto Suro, The Pew Hispanic Center; Elizabeth Grieco, Migration Policy Institute; David Gutiérrez, University of California–San Diego; Michael Jones-Correa, Cornell University; Ricardo Stanton-Salazar, University of Southern California. Moderated by Andrew Selee, Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center and Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

**Full Conference proceedings available in PDF form here.

Fundamental questions about the nature and significance of Latino immigration to the United States were raised in a roundtable convened on March 29 by the Migration Policy Institute and the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute and Division of United States Studies. The program was organized in part to provide the fact-based information about Latino immigration that the speakers found lacking in Samuel Huntington's "The Hispanic Challenge," which appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy.

Philippa Strum and Demetrios Papademtriou reminded the audience of both the crucial place of immigration in American history and the distaste and disrespect for immigrants that has always been part of the collective American consciousness. The long-standing trends toward racial stereotyping, as well as the perpetual fear of the Other throughout American history, are an important part of the context in which to assess current reactions to Latino immigration.

Roberto Suro noted that in the last decade Latino immigrants have come from more diverse occupations and have settled in areas of the U.S. that had previously seen few such immigrants. This has changed the shape of the debate in the United States as immigrants are integrated more directly into more sectors of American society. The influx of workers has resulted in a flattening of wages for both long-standing residents of the U.S. and new immigrants, creating an atmosphere in which immigrants are chastised for working too hard and thereby taking jobs away from native-born Americans.

The effect of the dispersion of Latino immigrants was underscored by Elizabeth Grieco, who presented a demographic analysis of immigration to the United States. Grieco drew on U.S. Census data to show that Huntington's suggestion of huge numbers of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. is an exaggeration. Foreign-born Hispanics/Latinos accounted for only 9% of the total United States population in 1990 and 11% in 2000. While the rate of Latino and particularly Mexican immigration to the United States has increased in recent years, in 2000 only 9.2 million of the country's foreign-born population was Mexican, out of 31.1 million total foreign-born American residents and a total population of 281.4 million. The absorption of these immigrants, however, is not uniform nationwide, with some states disproportionately faced with the challenge of integrating and acculturating newcomers to the U.S.

David Gutiérrez commented on the inconsistency of the country's condemning Latino immigrants for failing to learn English and earn advanced degrees while simultaneously voting to eliminate bilingual education and affirmative action programs. As Ricardo Stanton-Salazar noted, maintaining and encouraging bilingualism in young Americans, particularly in public elementary schools, has significant results. He cited data showing that bilingual students, regardless of socioeconomic status, tend to earn higher grades and are less likely to drop out than their English-only counterparts. Students who retain capability in their native language, he suggested, are more able to make use of the support structures in their ethnic communities and are therefore less likely to become disaffected. Bilingualism facilitates biculturalism, which provides young first- and second- generation immigrants with alternative resources to supplement school systems that are often indifferent to their success.

Gutiérrez also stressed the difference between American immigration problems and American immigrant problems. Barring a mass repatriation of the 38 million Latino Americans already residing in the United States, he reminded the audience, issues of integration, both linguistic and cultural, are here to stay. And, added Michael Jones-Correa, so are the immigrants. Despite the ease of maintaining ties to home countries, there are still strong disincentives to immigrants returning to their nations of origin. Stressing the contribution of Latino immigrants to the American economy, Jones-Correa pointed out that while remittances of Latino immigrants to family and communities left behind accounted for nearly $30 billion in 2003, that figure represented only 4.5% of Latino income in the United States. Thus even though a large amount of money flows back to Latin American economies, it is by no means a major part of the wages earned by Latino immigrants to the United States, most of which is reinvested in the American economy.

During a lively question-and-answer session, further criticisms were leveled at Huntington's theory and methodology. Suro attributed many of the problems cited by Huntington to falling investment in public education, which results in a crippling of the infrastructure by which past immigrants were acculturated to the American way of life. Strum added that the media also play an educational role, and criticized Foreign Policy for allowing questionable scholarship to set the terms of the discussion over Latino immigration. Papademtriou agreed, offering a blistering condemnation of Foreign Policy and suggesting that, at least in Washington, Huntington had already won the debate because "the first out of the gate wins." Carlos Lozano, Managing Editor of Foreign Policy, responding from the audience, suggested that Howard Dean might take a different view of "the first out of the gate" idea, eliciting laughter from the audience.


 

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