New Census figures out this week show that the Hispanic population in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the last decade. Hispanics now number roughly 50 million nationwide, up from 35 million in 2000. They also are no longer concentrated in just a handful of Southwestern states, as they were for decades, but have spread out across the country. Some of the largest percentage increases have incurred in Southern states, with the Hispanic population more than doubling in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. Both higher Hispanic birthrates and immigration have driven this trend.
But what will this demographic shift in the American population mean in the long term? I've documented the rapid assimilation of Hispanics into the social and economic mainstream for years, starting with my 1991 book, "Out of the Barrio: Towards a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation."
Like the descendants of their German, Italian, Polish, and other immigrant predecessors, Hispanics have adopted English as their primary -- indeed, for most third-generation Hispanics, only -- language. They eventually catch up in earnings and other indicators of social integration, though they still lag in completion of college degrees. As a point of reference, it took Italian-Americans six decades from their point of peak immigration to catch up with other groups in education attainment.
And in the ultimate test of assimilation, Hispanics actually intermarry at higher rates than their European counterparts did at a similar point in their history in the U.S.
If this pattern continues, the increase in the size of the Hispanic population will have no more disruptive effect on the character of the American population than did the absorption of millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans early in the 20th century. But, as occurred then, a large and growing backlash against this demographic shift is taking place now.
In the early 20th century, that backlash basically closed the door on legal immigration. In 1924, the U.S. passed laws to severely restrict immigration-laws that were intentionally aimed at keeping out certain categories of immigrants based on ethnicity: namely Italians, Poles, Russians (who were mostly Jewish), and other Southern and Eastern Europeans. Congress had already passed laws forbidding immigration of Chinese and other Asian immigrants in 1882.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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