The Next American Majority

November 1, 2013 Topic: DemographySociety Regions: United States

The Next American Majority

Mini Teaser: Our policy of demographic revolution—and its potentially profound economic and social effects.

by Author(s): William W. Chip

NOT EVERYONE agrees that the disheartening statistics on Hispanic education and family formation are harbingers of a troubled future. In 2001, neoconservative journalist Michael Barone predicted in The New Americans that today’s Hispanic immigrants would repeat the triumphant march into the American middle class of the Italian immigrants who disembarked at Ellis Island a century earlier. I agree with Barone that Hispanic immigrants, imbued with many of the Latin, Catholic traditions of the earlier Italian immigrants, could do worse than to emulate the achievements of their antecedents. The stretch of land between Boston and Baltimore is thick with Roman Catholic cathedrals, universities and hospitals established (and sometimes hand constructed) by Italian, Irish and Polish newcomers.

Unfortunately, within the contemporary Hispanic community there has been comparably less building of institutions. This may be due to bad timing. The parochial schools that drilled so many Catholic immigrant children in the rigors of their religion and the mores of Anglo-Protestant culture are fewer in number and cost more to attend, mainly because the ranks of nuns who staffed them in exchange for food and shelter have been depleted. More importantly, the twentieth-century revolution in automated manufacturing that enabled Ellis Island immigrants as well as their native-born contemporaries to aspire to a middle-class lifestyle without a university degree has come to a close and been succeeded by revolutions in transportation and information processing that have globalized the economy.

The dual forces of rapid globalization and mass immigration have stunted upward mobility in the United States and contributed to the much-lamented growth in the wealth and income gap. In a globalized, free-trading economy, any product or service that can be made or performed by a low-paid worker will be imported from abroad, unless it cannot be imported at all. Because of globalization, the number of U.S. residents who can earn a good living competing in the market for importable goods and services is shrinking; because of immigration, the number of U.S. residents who must earn their living providing retail, building-maintenance, nursing, carpentry and other nonimportable services to the globally competitive minority is expanding. If the number of people who can afford to pay for a service is declining, and the number of people who earn their living by providing that service is growing, the law of supply and demand mandates that the latter’s wages must fall.

The collapse of real wages for Americans without a college degree has had a devastating impact on family formation, and not just within the Hispanic community. Last year, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute tracked the growth of “lower class” whites from 8 percent of the total white population in the late 1960s to over 20 percent in 2010. The two largest segments of this expanding lower-class population were single mothers and men who could not make enough money to keep two adults out of poverty.

Acknowledgement of these realities has been generally absent from the debate. In a rare exception, T. A. Frank argued in the New Republic earlier this year that liberals should oppose the immigration-reform bill currently under consideration for reasons similar to those described above. But he lamented that this view was likely to be dismissed out of hand as retrograde and unthinking: “The consensus among decent people in favor of the immigration bill making its way through Congress is so firm that expressing dissent feels a bit like taking the floor to suggest we chop down the Redwood National Park.”

To the injuries wrought by uncontrolled immigration on Americans of every race and ethnicity has been added for Hispanic Americans the unique insult of losing their own voice. Traditional Hispanic groups such as the League of Latin American Citizens, run by dues-paying members and advocating patriotism and assimilation, have been nearly driven out of business by foundation-funded organizations. For some of these advocacy groups, the Hispanic experience was foreshadowed not by the uplifting saga of Ellis Island immigrants, but instead by the struggles of African Americans. From that perspective, enforcing our immigration laws is just another form of discrimination.

The simple fact is that in a globalized society, mass immigration serves to depress the wages of working-class citizens—both natives and immigrants—and thereby to swell an underclass whose problems seem close to irremediable by our society and its government. As Frank observed, this may be “good for wealthy Americans,” but it’s an “immense blow to America’s working class and poor.” To say this is not a value judgment on those who seek to come to the United States. We, not they, are to blame for our out-of-date, weakly enforced immigration policies. The country and the world have changed significantly over the past century, and with these changes America’s ability to successfully absorb large numbers of low-skilled immigrants has decreased sharply. But until this issue can be examined in a cool and dispassionate manner, the shadow cast by a forest of myths will continue to occlude a rational debate about immigration into America.

William W. Chip is an international attorney living in Washington, DC, and a member of the board of directors of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Image: Flickr/jnn1776. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Image: Pullquote: Why is a nation confronted with a collapsing infrastructure, declining wages and widespread unemployment on the verge of sanctioning the largest wave of legal immigration in its history?Essay Types: Essay