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Hispanic Boom

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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.

Today the backlash has mostly focused on illegal immigration -- but fewer illegal immigrants are entering the U.S. now than at any point in the last 35 years due to the economic downturn and better border enforcement. Nonetheless, illegal immigration has been a major factor in the growth of the Hispanic population, with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living here.

In addition, some 350,000 children born in 2009 had at least one parent who was an illegal immigrant, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Overall, some 8 percent of children born now have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant. Because all persons born in the United States (other than the children of diplomats) are constitutionally guaranteed U.S. citizenship by birth, the U.S. citizen children of illegal immigrants have become the latest target of this backlash.

Last week, the Arizona legislature, which has been on the front lines of the anti-illegal immigration movement, failed to pass legislation aimed at denying citizenship to children whose parents reside in the state illegally. But the controversy there continues. State Senate President Russell Pearce has fanned the flames by releasing a letter written by a substitute teacher in Phoenix, who claimed: "Most of the Hispanic students do not want to be educated but rather be gang members and gangsters." Pearce's Republican state senate colleague Lori Klein read the letter into the record during the debate.

Imagine the furor that would have ensued had a legislator read into the record a letter claiming, "Most black students want to become welfare cheats," "Most Jewish students want to become Bernie Madoff" or "Most Italian students want to join the Mafia."

The teacher also claimed that students in his eighth-grade class refused to pledge allegiance to the flag and that they asserted, "We are Mexicans and Americans stole our land." But the allegations turn out to be false. The school district has investigated them and could not find a single person present on the two days the sub taught at the school who corroborated his claims.

The changing demographics of the American population are a fact -- but how we respond to them will determine whether we successfully assimilate these new Americans or not. Pearce's model, which promotes racist stereotypes in public discourse, is the wrong way.

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