Will Hispanics Fire up America?

Michael Barone
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Posted: Mar 20, 2015 12:01 AM
Will Hispanics Fire up America?

"Firing up America" is the cover line on the March 20 issue of The Economist, heralding a 16-page special report on America's Latinos. Its tone is resolutely upbeat -- perhaps a bit too much so.

"America is lucky to have millions of energetic young people filling its schools with kids who will eventually pay taxes and fund pensions and health care for the old," The Economist writes. "Like other immigrants, they talk a lot about the American Dream. By that they mean the baby boomers' hopes of home ownership, a college education and upward mobility."

Unfortunately, it's not clear how many young Hispanics will achieve those elements of the American dream or whether they'll provide quite as bounteous a source of funding for Social Security and Medicare as The Economist's cheery summary suggests.

As the article notes, successive generations of Hispanics are not, so far, turning out to be as upwardly mobile as some other immigrant groups. Second-generation Hispanics have more negative health outcomes, higher divorce rates and higher incarceration rates than their immigrant elders.

Almost all second- and third-generation Hispanics are "confident" of their command of English -- a good trend that may owe something to California voters' 1998 decision to limit "bilingual" instruction to one year. But third-generation students' test scores are lower than those of their parents.

In my 2001 book "The New Americans," I likened the Hispanic immigrants of today to the Italians who came through Ellis Island a century ago. Both came from low-trust societies; both tended to have close family ties and a willingness to work hard. Both headed to big metro areas with lots of job opportunities. But so far the Hispanics who crossed the southern border don't seem to have moved upward as rapidly as Italian-Americans did in the last century.

There are some encouraging signs, as The Economist points out. Teenage pregnancy rates have been declining among Hispanics, as among blacks and non-Hispanic whites. Perhaps as they grow older, these Millennials' marriage rates will be higher and divorce rates lower than those who are just a little older. We can hope, but we don't know.

What we do know is something The Economist mostly skates over: The vast immigration from Latin America, mostly from Mexico, between 1982 and 2007, is over -- at least for now. Net migration from Mexico in 2007-12 was zero, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

One result is that an increasing majority of young Hispanics here were born here, and so are U.S. citizens. That means that, absent a new wave of illegal immigrants, the debate over legalization and/or a path to citizenship will become less relevant over time. The immigration restrictionists who argued that the "pause" in immigration after the restrictive 1924 legislation encouraged assimilation now have something like the pause for which they called.

But whether assimilation midcentury-America-style will follow is unclear. From The Economist's London perspective, it looks far easier than the task of assimilating Britain's and Europe's Muslim immigrants. Few American Hispanics, despite the efforts of Chicano studies professors, take an oppositional stance toward the larger society.

At the same time, racial quotas and preferences give Hispanics -- or at least Hispanic group leaders and politicians -- a vested interest in maintaining a separate racial identity. The federal government created the Hispanic category in the 1970s on the theory that Hispanics had suffered or would suffer similar adverse treatment to that of blacks.

Historically, that's wrong: Slavery and segregation, as black history scholars rightly teach, were unique. Anti-Hispanic segregation was spotty and had essentially disappeared before the 1982-2007 immigration wave.

An interesting question going forward is the persistence of Hispanic identity. One-quarter of recent Hispanic marriages have been to non-Hispanics. Will their children identify themselves as Hispanics on Census forms? Census bureaucrats are contemplating rewriting their questions so more people will describe themselves as both Hispanic and non-white.

That points to an America in which a majority of citizens are classified as minorities eligible for benefits and preferences. As Christopher Caldwell argues in the Claremont Review, there is a tension between that state of affairs and the national motto of e pluribus unum.

The Economist rightly argues that America's Hispanics can be a national asset. But how much of an asset depends on whether they can be assimilated and encouraged to move upward as the Ellis Islanders were a century ago.