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The Welcome Effects of Latino Immigration

Jul 6, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 42 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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While the more euphonious "Latinos" is heard often in California and sometimes in Texas, the Census Bureau prefers the clumsy word "Hispanics" to describe them -- the people descended from the European colonists, American Indians, and African slaves in Spain's former possessions in the New World.

And there are today 29 million of them in the United States, more than one in ten people. Soon there will be more Latinos than blacks. Of Americans over thirty-five, 7 percent are Hispanic; of those under thirty-five, 13 percent are. Given continuing high rates of immigration and intermarriage, it is likely that within fifty years more than one in five people in the United States will be of Latino descent.

Obviously they will do much to shape America in the twenty-first century. Yet most Americans know little about America's Hispanics, and much they think they know is wrong. Nor do the experts always get things right -- which should not be surprising, for the rush of Latinos since the Immigration Act of 1965 was almost entirely unpredicted.

Indeed, Hispanics and immigration were completely ignored in what remains the most influential expression of elite thinking on minorities: the report issued in 1968 by the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders. In its most famous formulation, the Kerner Report claimed that we were moving toward "two societies, one black and one white -- separate and unequal." The claim, it turns out, was factually wrong: As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom point out in their magisterial America in Black and White, blacks are more integrated and affluent today than they were in 1968, just as they were more integrated and affluent in 1968 than in 1940. But the claim was also historically wrong, massively understating American diversity. Ethnically, religiously, and regionally, there have always been many more than two Americas, and Americans have, for the most part, been able to live together and build the most tolerant, affluent nation in the history of the world.

The Kerner Report, however, swept all history aside as irrelevant. There are only the white majority and the black minority, and the nation's chief problem is racial discrimination. Since it cannot rely on the market economy, the minority needs something like socialism to prevent crime and rioting. Government must provide a guaranteed income either by creating public-sector jobs or (in the innovation of the Nixon administration) guaranteeing private-sector jobs through racial quotas and preferences.

When the Kerner Report was issued, no one thought to look at Latinos: They weren't rioting and made news only with Cesar Chavez's migrant-worker strikes. But Latinos were added in the 1970s to the civil-rights statutes at the initiative of Barbara Jordan, who noticed that her congressional district in Houston had a rapidly growing Latino population. And the assumption was made that Hispanics -- like the other newly defined categories of Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, Eskimos, and Aleuts -- were pretty much like blacks: Discrimination is the problem, and welfare and quotas the only alternative to crime and riots.

All of these assumptions about Hispanics are refuted in Roberto Suro's new Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America. A reporter who has covered a wide variety of beats for the New York Times and Washington Post, Suro grew up the son of a Puerto Rican father and Ecuadoran mother in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, speaking Spanish at home and English everywhere else. In Strangers Among Us, he gives beautiful, vivid pictures of how today's Latinos live: the Mayas in the garden apartments of Houston's Gulfton, the Dominicans in New York's Washington Heights, the banda dancers on Los Angeles County's Firestone Boulevard, the border patrol of Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, the denizens of the drug culture in Los Angeles's MacArthur Park.

Largely absent from Strangers Among Us is evidence of discrimination against Latinos. They have no trouble finding jobs: Hispanic males have the highest work-force participation of any statistical category. They work hard and well, with painstaking thoroughness and devotion to duty. Indeed, many employers discriminate in favor of Latinos: Suro quotes one employer who prefers to hire new immigrants from the same Mexican town as his current workers, because he knows they will show up and work hard.