Janesville73°

Immigration’s growing pains

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Esther Cepeda
November 24, 2011
— If there’s anything good to be said about the substance of the national debate over immigration, it’s that even though policy conversations have centered almost exclusively on enforcement measures, the focus is no longer cultural.

Back in 2005 when the Hispanic community went into revolt after Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsored a “papers, please” bill that also criminalized those assisting illegal immigrants—very similar to the ones several states have now passed—two competing narratives emerged.


One was comprised of millions of illegal immigrants, and their supporters, who marched in the streets of major cities proudly waving Mexican flags and Spanish-language signs proclaiming the value of illegal immigrants’ contributions to this country.


The other was that of people who took the mass spectacle of the immigration reform marches as a clear sign that “the Mexicans” wanted to “take over” the U.S. in an attempt to transform America’s very soul.


Since Barack Obama took office in 2008, the rhetoric about illegal immigrants certainly hasn’t gotten any nicer—the FBI’s annual hate crime statistics recently reported that two-thirds of victims of ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2010 were “targeted because of an anti-Hispanic bias,” the highest percentage of such victims in at least the past decade. But the focus has thankfully turned to far less emotional arguments about economic impacts.


I’ll take that any day over misplaced hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about whether the Great American Assimilation Machine’s gears have ground to a halt. The fact is, even though our country will always be subtly shaped by the values, customs and habits of other cultures, new immigrants tend to have one important thing in common: the desire to become “American.”


According to “Assimilation Tomorrow: How America’s Immigrants Will Integrate by 2030,” a new report by University of Southern California demographers Dowell Myers and John Pitkin, the answers to the worried questions “Will they learn English?” and “Will today’s immigrants fully integrate to become tomorrow’s Americans?” are a resounding “yes.”


The numbers say it all: the percentage of new immigrants speaking English “well or very well” is projected to rise from the current 57.5 percent to 70.3 percent in 2030. And not only will “tomorrow’s Americans” integrate into society, they will be successful. The number living in poverty is estimated to fall from 22.8 percent to 13.4 percent, and the percentage of immigrants who own, rather than rent, their homes is projected to rise from 25.5 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2030.


The fact that immigrants from Latin America are assimilating into American life just like their predecessors did is probably a result of their children’s all-American upbringing.


An October marketing report by the bilingual, bicultural TV network Tr3s, put Latinos’ current-day rate of integration into perspective this way: U.S.-born Hispanics will make up about 65 percent of the coveted 18-29 adult demographic by 2015. It’s pretty obvious to me this shift is driving the many angst-filled blog posts I’m seeing about Latino identity and political persuasions.


For example, while all Latinos seem to raise a glass when statistics show that 54 percent of Hispanics are on Facebook—blunting the stereotype of poor, digitally divided minorities—considerably fewer celebrate emerging conservative political stars such as New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Florida tea party darling Marco Rubio. And while some Hispanics love that their numbers contributed to the increase in the U.S. Census Bureau’s white population counts, others have been sent into a tizzy wondering what it means to be both Hispanic and white in a country where almost everyone generally considers Hispanics a nonwhite minority.


These are a diverse community’s natural “growing pains” as it charts a historic course in its adopted homeland—and not the musings of alien invaders bent on remaking this country into some more-affluent version of Latin America. We should continue to vigorously debate the costs and benefits of illegal immigration, the enforcement of state and federal immigration laws, and the integration of newcomers.


But when it’s all said and done, anyone who feared America would be forever changed by the will of a wave of foreign invaders can rest assured: It will continue to be populated by multicultural red-blooded Americans with a strong appetite for baseball and apple pie.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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