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Oh, Say, Can You See?
Immigration Will Reshape America More Profoundly Than Trade Or Technology, Argues John Micklethwait
March 11, 2000
IF YOU are looking for a parable of the rich variety of life in America, you could do worse than to take a drive along one of its most famous streets. Sunset Boulevard snakes away from the Pacific Ocean into the hills of rich west Los Angeles. In plush Brentwood, the only non-white faces are Latino maids and gardeners. As Sunset skirts Bel Air, elegant banners tell you what is happening at that haven of Eurocentric civilisation, the Getty Centre. Then comes the garish Sunset strip, where Tinseltowns blonde-studded billboards trumpet Americas domination of the entertainment industry.
As Sunset works its way through Hollywood, you pass a sort of no mans landor should it be everymans land?where El Pollo Loco, Hoys Wok and a restaurant called Uzbekistan nestle beside Burger King. One shop claims to be "The Crossroads of the World". Gradually the number of Spanish signs increases.
Television stations point out that they broadcast "Todo el dia en español"; a website called quepasa.com urges Spanish speakers to get online. As you near Dodger Stadium, most dry cleaners and hairdressers have become lavenderias and peluqueriasalthough some shop-signs mix the languages, as in "Bonita y Cheap".
At the very end of Sunset lie two surprises. The first is a brief spell in Chinatown: suddenly Asian schoolchildren replace Hispanic ones, and Spanish signs give way to Chinese ones. The second is that soon afterwards Sunset becomes Cesar Chavez Avenue, after the leader of the Latino farm workers movement.
The point about this journey down Sunset is that it is far from exceptional. Some Los Angelenos would say that Wilshire or Olympic Boulevard offer an even more cosmopolitan hodge-podge. In Chicago, Fullerton Avenue begins in rich white Lincoln Park, but soon takes you on a global walkabout through different parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America. In Queens, New York, a ride on the number seven subway train above Roosevelt Avenue offers you a quick demonstration that this is indeed the worlds most ethnically diverse country.
And why stop at the immigrants familiar haunts? Iowa has been quietly importing Bosnians and Sudanese to rejuvenate its ageing population. In Silicon Valley, whites are now an acknowledged minority. Levittown, Pennsylvania, the quintessential American suburb, boasts a Turkish mosque. In Orange County, the home of John Wayne Airport, the two first children to be born this millennium were Cambodian-American and Mexican-American. Detroit claims to be the Arab capital of America. Miami used to be thought of as a Cuban enclave, but is becoming more Haitian, more Jamaican, more all sorts of things. The mayor of Miami-Dade, Alex Penelas, says his region is home to 156 nationalities.
In the 1950 census, America was 89% white and 10% black. Other races hardly got a look-in. Now Latinos account for around 12% of the population.
Within the next five years, they will overtake blacks to become the largest minority group. If current trends continue, they will be the majority in Los Angeles County in ten years. In 20 years, they will dominate Texas and California. By 2050, one in four of the 400m people who will then be living in the United States will be Latinoand if you add in Asians, their joint share will be one in three (see chart 1). The bulk of the "new Americans" on whom this survey will concentrate are Latinos and Asians, although there are also newcomers among the "white" and "black" groups.
The rise of these new Americans is being fuelled by immigration. Every year roughly a million new people arrive (700,000 legally, 300,000 illegally); more than in any other country in absolute numbers, though not as a proportion of the population.
Once settled, the immigrants generally have more children than their neighbours (an average of around three per woman, compared with 1.8 for non-Hispanic white women). Since 1990, the number of foreign-born American residents has risen by 6m to just over 25m in the biggest immigration wave since the days when newcomers from Europe crowded on to Ellis Island around the turn of the 20th century. Half of the 50m new inhabitants expected in America in the next 25 years will be immigrants or the children of immigrants.
So what is new? In Americas short modern history, heavy immigration has been the rule; remember Americas motto, e pluribus unum. In the period from 1850 to 1920, roughly one in eight Americans was foreign-born. As Michael Barone, a columnist for US News and World Report, has put it: "Ethnic diversity is as American as apple pieor soul food or tacos or dim sum."
Indeed; and the effect of the current wave of immigrants seems likely to be every bit as momentous as that of the last great wave a century ago. In fact, it may turn out to be even more influential, for three reasons. To begin, America is now a well-established place rather than a frontier wilderness. Immigrants are no longer simply filling up empty space. Second, people have arguably become even more important than they were. A hundred years ago, Henry Ford complained that when he hired a pair of hands, he also got a human being; for the kind of work on offer in his factories, that was more of a hindrance than a help. Nowadays all the vogueish economic forcesthe New Economy, globalisation, technologyemphasise the importance of human capital.
The third (and politically incorrect) point is that the current arrivals are different from their European predecessorsand many of them look different too. Xavier Becerra, a young congressman with an office in the most Latino part of Sunset Boulevard, explains that "I am always identified before I identify." Next, thanks to a mixture of improved technology and geographical proximity, Latinos feel (and are) much closer to their homelands than earlier European immigrants. They also have a common language that can at least put up a decent fight against English.
This survey will seek to answer three fundamental questions: Is the melting pot still working? If so, is it good for America? And how will this latest wave of New Americans change their chosen country? As for the first two, most of the available evidence suggests that the melting pot is still bubbling away, and benefiting everybody. But there is a danger of overstating those benefits. Immigration plainly has its losers as well as its winners, and in economic terms the easily measurable pluses appear to be small. There are big doubts about Americas immigration policy and its laws, and big worries over whether its education system can cope.
The third question might best be answered in culinary terms. If you add new ingredients to a thick stew, those ingredients are bound to lose some of their particular tangbut they will also change the flavour of the stew. Among other things, immigrants are helping to drag the country south-westward; they are changing what America listens to and what it eats; they are opening up a gap between half a dozen multi-ethnic centres that attract well over half the newcomers, and a much less diverse heartland; indeed, they may change the way the country thinks about everything from abortion to NAFTA.
Even the terms "Latino" and "Asian-American" are problematic. Does it make sense to lump together, say, a computer programmer from Bangalore, a shopkeeper from Seoul and a Hmong tribesman? Around two-thirds of Latinos hail from Mexico, but Texans of Mexican descent like to be called Tejanos, whereas other Mexican-Americans prefer to be known as Chicanos. This survey mostly uses the blanket term Latino because it seems mildly less disliked and more accurate than Hispanic.
For the moment, the effect of the new immigrants has barely begun to be felt. Yet the issues they raise often lurk behind the headlines. One example is the sad tale of Elian Gonzalez, a six-year-old Cuban boy who recently arrived in Miami, having watched his mother drown during an attempted escape from Cuba. He immediately became the subject of a grotesque custody fight between his father (backed by the Cuban government) and his relations in Miami (backed by Cuban émigré groups).
Around the same time the sports pages were dominated by John Rocker, a white Atlanta Braves pitcher from a deprived background who had made unhelpful remarks about multi-racial New York ("The biggest thing I dont like about New York are the foreigners, Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?"). Mr Rocker was immediately condemned by all concerned, but many
Latino politicians worry that he simply spelt out what many people like him feeland that those feelings could gather strength if the economy loses its fizz.
It has happened before. The Ellis Island wave of a century ago, now universally considered a good thing, also roused opposition in its time, eventually followed by legislation to stop it. In a nasty flirtation with eugenics in the 1920s, Congress imposed a series of quotas by national origin on immigration. Indeed, the current surge in new arrivals has its origin in the lifting of those quotas in the 1960s.
Californians note that whites, who were once so generous to newcomers, are beginning to behave like a minority under pressure.
Demography is destiny Americans have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to immigration. Most polls show that around two-thirds of the population would like to reduce it (with the most recent arrivals often among the most hostile); but the same proportion think that legal immigration is a good thing, and that family members should have the right to bring in their relatives. The explanation may be that immigrants encapsulate the American dream, but they are also responsible for an embarrassing secret. A country built by immigrants, the United States still derives much of its youthful vitality from their presence. Pick up the biography of any American figure, and it will begin "He/his parents/his grandparents came to America with nothing, but...". Silicon Valley is merely the latest American showpiece to be built in large part by immigrants. The embarrassing secret is the importance to daily life of illegal immigrants. Every American politician claims to condemn their presence, but without them the domestic life of middle-class America would fall apart; food prices would climb steeply as produce rotted in the fields; hotel rooms would stand uncleaned; swimming pools would become septic tanks; and taxis would disappear from the streets. In short, the country would grind to a halt.
For the most part, the system that has evolved suits both employers, who get cheap and plentiful labour, and employees, who although badly paid earn much more than they would at home. But it still has its problems. Many of those gardeners and cleaners live in conditions that shame such a rich country. The system also makes an ass of the law. America spends a fortune trying to stop people coming in, often putting their lives at risk, but does next to nothing once they have arrived.
This survey will argue that the current wave of immigration should be viewed with guarded optimism. That is partly because, without immigrants, rich countries tend to get old fast. Europe is beginning to notice that, and so is Japan. But the main justification is the attitude of the immigrants themselves. Whatever the problems, those people came to America because they wanted to be there. Drive along the streets of Los Angeles at seven in the morning, and you will see groups of Latino men gathered at street corners and in car parks, waiting to work long hours for low pay. If America squanders their enthusiasm, it will not be their fault.