The Welcome Effects of Latino Immigration

Saturday, January 30, 1999

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 twenty-nine 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 the 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 workforce 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.

Nor are racial quotas a great advantage. Suro cites a young Latino police sergeant in Houston who dislikes quotas and preferences: “The white guys at the station say we don’t got what it takes to compete and that’s why they made special rules to let us score high enough. I think we put ourselves at a disadvantage. I think we are just making excuses for ourselves and the Anglos know it.”

And he quotes an older sergeant’s dissent: “Look, you don’t know because you weren’t here, but it used to be that they played all kinds of games to hold us down. They had height requirements to keep us off the force. They screwed around with promotion lists, with work assessments, with everything. We had to fight to get the first Mexican sergeants and the first detective and the first everything.”

But of course the younger sergeant is right, and the older sergeant’s past irrelevant: If quotas and preferences were removed, the Houston police department would not go back to the 1950s. Skin color is not the disadvantage it once was.

For thirty years, blacks—as if bound by the predictions of the Kerner Report—have tended to bet on the public sector, seeking jobs from the government and big corporations subject to quota pressure. But government and big business have not been the growth sectors of the economy. Latinos have looked largely to the private sector and small employers for jobs, and they have bet on the winners.

To be sure, many of these jobs, especially for newcomers, are low wage, some heartbreakingly so. Illegal immigrants often work for subminimum wages and in appalling conditions, unable to protest, and—as Fred Siegel argues in The Future Once Happened Here, his study of the American city—heavy immigration may be driving down wages in some places. Overall Hispanic wages are only 57 percent of the American average.

But with multiple jobs and multiple earners, Hispanic household incomes are 73 percent of the national average, and for most immigrants this is a huge step forward. There were 863,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in 1992, and the count for 1997, not yet released, will be well over one million.

Hispanic crime rates remain well below black crime rates, and Suro makes the original and interesting point that Latinos in the 1990s have been much less likely to riot than to conform.

In his conclusion, Suro seems to accept the Kerner Report’s assumptions by arguing that government needs to do more to help Latinos. But his own reporting makes an even stronger case that liberal governmental programs actually hold Latinos back. Racial quotas and preferences put a stigma on their beneficiaries, and—as Suro himself points out—competition between blacks and Latinos for the diminishing number of quota places is a losing game. The real growth is taking place in private businesses, and the danger is that the taxes necessary for even a small public sector growth will stifle the private sector. Suro shows how the failure of high-tax, high-regulation New York to generate new jobs has hurt Puerto Ricans and Dominicans there. California’s lower taxes and Texas’s very low taxes have served Latinos better.

The fact is that Hispanics seem mostly to want to be treated not as a minority but merely as U.S. citizens. They have been injured by the public schools in thrall to the teachers’ unions, professors of education, and government bureaucrats. Bilingual education—the holding of children in Spanish-language instruction for years—was repudiated on June 2 by California’s voters. But whole language, new math, and other educational nostrums work against Latino children who desperately need basic learning. Light prison sentences and desultory police patrolling have made Latino neighborhoods more dangerous than they need be and have held down housing values (the chief source of personal wealth for most Hispanics). Urban renewal destroyed Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York in the 1950s, and crime-ridden public housing remains a threat in the 1990s. Welfare programs encouraging dependency threaten to weaken traditionally strong Latino families.

Fortunately, these policies are being changed. Welfare reform, starting in Governor Tommy Thompson’s Wisconsin, and new police tactics, notably in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s New York, are now sweeping the country. Crime rates and welfare rolls over the past four years have been decreasing as steeply as they increased during the awful decade from 1965 to 1975. Poor educational policies are being challenged by a dozen different reforms, from school choice to home schooling, and something on the order of one-fifth of the nation’s students in charter schools are Hispanic.

The model for what is happening with Latinos in the United States is not the 1960s of the Kerner Report but the era from 1880 to 1924, when the nation successfully handled an even larger number of immigrants. Suro wisely takes note of the New York ethnics portrayed in Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1963 Beyond the Melting Pot. Two excellent recent books, John Miller’s The Unmaking of Americans and Peter Salins’s Assimilation American Style, similarly reveal the uncanny resemblance between America’s present minorities and the largest immigrant groups a hundred years ago: In many important respects, today’s blacks resemble the Irish of the 1890s, Asians resemble the Jews, and Latinos the Italians. Like the Irish, the blacks have a history of justified mistrust of government, a tradition of producing many criminals and many cops, and a propensity for bureaucracy and hierarchy. Like the Jews, the Asians have a background of peril, a knack for commerce, and excellent academic abilities. Like the Italians, the Latinos have a strong distaste for large institutions, a love of family, and a habit of hard work.

The analogies break down at some point, but they explain a lot and give hope for the future. It was said of the Italians, as it is said of Latinos now, that they would never abandon their culture and language, never mix with an Anglo-Saxon democratic society, never improve their high school dropout rates, never escape crime and lawlessness. All these predictions proved wrong. Italian Americans now rank well above average in education and income.

Suro insists, “The melting pot was a historical event, not a model that can be adapted to a new time and place.” He argues that Latinos are different because they come a short geographic distance and because many of them retain roots in their original homes. But many Italians retained roots in Italy, and Latino immigrants have traveled distances just as mind-boggling as their Italian predecessors: It is more than a thousand miles to Los Angeles from the Mexican states where most of the city’s Latinos originated, more than two thousand miles to the neighborhood in Queens where a woman told me, “Everyone here is from Puebla.”

Suro gets it better when he writes, “Many Latinos appear to be adapting to this country at a faster pace than the immigrants in Beyond the Melting Pot.” They are adapting despite the policies and values of the Kerner Report, which fortunately seem to be on the wane. They will do even better if we continue to move toward the public policies and private values of early twentieth-century America—a push toward assimilation, education in basics, work-based welfare provision, tough law enforcement—while continuing to move away from the racism and bigotry of that time.

Of course, the experience of Latinos in America will not be exactly the same as that of the Italians. (Indeed, there is no uniform Latino experience, and Suro traces many of the different strands of Latino migration.) Like the Italians, Hispanics are heavily concentrated in a few metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami. But Italians were never the largest ethnic group in any major city, while Latinos hugely outnumber other ethnic groups in some places. The area around Los Angeles has nearly six million Hispanic residents, more than the total population of most states. And though—with the advance of Latin America in democracy and market economy—immigration will eventually decline, the rush of Latinos to the United States will probably continue for some years.

What then will a more heavily Hispanic America be like? Roberto Suro’s pictures in Strangers among Us of Latino communities bring to life places that are lively and noisy and full of people. These are people with an exceedingly strong work ethic and a strong loyalty to family. They have gone through bewildering experiences with determination and strength. If they seem silent and stoic at work, the atmosphere on their streets is a lot like Little Italy a hundred years ago. We know that the Italian Americans succeeded and contributed much to the flavor of American life. We can be confident that Latino Americans will do the same—and that just about everyone will like the result.