Hispanic Nation: Myth And Reality

Immigration has always been one of the primary drivers of economic growth in America. Today, Hispanics are the latest immigrant group remaking the face of the U.S. with their huge numbers, their Spanish language, and their dynamic culture. They are energizing an aging population, supporting a housing boom, supplying scarce labor to many industries, and making the marketplace pay attention to their growing billions in disposable income. Hispanics are typical of other immigrant groups before them in their willingness to risk much in search of a better life.

Unfortunately, like the Italians, Poles, Chinese, and others, Hispanics are also provoking an ugly, nativistic reaction by those who feel threatened by their presence. No less an authority than Samuel P. Huntington, chairman of the Harvard Academy for International & Area Studies, has written in his forthcoming book Who We Are? that Mexicans and other Latino immigrants threaten "Anglo-Protestant" values by their unwillingness to assimilate into mainstream American culture. This is rather overheated.

It is true that this wave of immigrants differs from previous ones, not only because it is bigger but also because it is largely across a common border -- Mexico -- and involves millions of illegal immigrants. The continuous inflow of people keeps ties to Spanish culture and language. And the need for illegals to live furtively makes their assimilation more difficult.

Indeed, the unique shape of the Hispanic immigrant wave leads some to believe it will follow a different path. One scenario has Hispanics acculturating rather than assimilating by retaining much of their language and culture even as they adapt to U.S. life. Another has them remaining separate from much of America. Yet the data show that Hispanics are learning English as fast as any other immigrant group. The big difference is that they are retaining their Spanish longer -- which is a plus. Hispanic rates of intermarriage are also similar to other immigrant groups. By the third generation, a third of Hispanic women marry non-Latinos. Hispanics comprise nearly 10% of the U.S. military.

Hispanics do have a serious problem with education. Nearly 90% of nonimmigrant Americans graduate from high school, compared with 55% among Hispanics, while 26% of whites get college degrees, compared with only 8% of Hispanics. Compared with other immigrants, there are more poorly educated, rural Hispanics who are illiterate in their own language. The Hispanic culture of hard work may also be hurting the drive for higher education. Education remains the key challenge to the Hispanic community.

The ability of the U.S. to absorb the foreign-born and weave them into the fabric of American society is one of its major competitive strengths. Each immigrant wave has taught the nation something new, making it more flexible, innovative, stronger. Despite the alarms, this wave is likely to be no different. And that's a good thing.

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