Saturday, July 10, 2004

Immigrants help give America its identity, not its identity crisis

Immigrants help give America its identity, not its identity crisis
Jul. 11, 2004 12:00 AM

The central thesis of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington's book, Who Are We?, is his claim that "the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives."

He raises fears that the United States will not remain "a country with a single language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture," but become transformed into two cultures and two languages.

Huntington's polemic is the latest expression in a long history of alarms about immigration to the United States. As successive waves of immigrants arrived in the United States over two centuries - Irish, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Germans, Eastern Europeans and many others - they were always greeted by nativist protests targeted against the different languages, appearances, religions and lifestyles, and against the workplace competitiveness of the new arrivals. Europeans today are familiar with the anger and fear directed at immigrants in various continental countries.

But Huntington says that his analysis is different from the time-worn and predictable screeds, because this wave of immigration is so profoundly different from any before it and therefore more dangerous to American identity. He postulates six reasons why he believes the successes of past immigration are irrelevant to the present situation. They are:

• Contiguity: the fact that the United States shares a porous 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

• Scale: that Hispanics total about one-half of all immigrants entering the United States, so that for the first time in U.S. history, half of those entering the nation "speak a single non-English language."

• Illegality: that estimates of Mexican illegal immigrants, which ranged as high as 350,000 per year in the 1990s, mean that today an estimated 4.8 million Mexicans make up 69 percent of the illegal population.

• Regional concentration: that the proportions of Hispanics continue to grow in the regions of heaviest residence, such as the Southwestern states and California.

• Persistence: that the current wave of Hispanic immigration shows no signs of slowing.

• Historical presence: that because major parts of the American Southwest were once part of Mexico, "Mexican Americans enjoy a sense of being on their own turf that is not shared by other immigrants."

Certain of Huntington's six points are matters of unarguable fact, such as that the United States shares a 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Others points are matters of conjecture, such as whether immigration flows will be persistent or will be sustained at the scale of recent years, because the flows depend on relative economic conditions in the sending nations and on the scale of the demand for workers in the United States in years to come. But it is in drawing his overarching conclusions from these six points that Huntington goes badly off course.

Unfortunately, as with navigating across a great sea, a few degrees of misjudgment here, a few degrees of miscalculation there, and a few degrees of plain old wrong-headedness in the end will bring the ship out in a very strange place.

If Columbus had used Huntington's method of reckoning, there would be no United States to worry about its immigrant history because this land would still be in the hands of the Native Americans, and Columbus would have searched for gold in Antarctica.

Huntington comes out so wrong for an ironic reason: He doesn't ascribe enough strength to America's culture, the attraction of its way of life or the power of its institutions.

Each immigrant has made a personal calculation that life in the United States is better than life in his or her own country and has acted upon that conviction. Today's Hispanic immigrants uproot themselves, disrupt the lives of loved ones, confront dangers and face new circumstances not in order to re-create their own country in the United States, but to learn America's ways of success and progress.

That personal commitment to work and striving repeated millions of times is a powerful source of energy for the American future. In amazingly few years, Hispanic immigrants and their children adapt language, work practices and lifestyles to the American way. They serve patriotically in America's armed forces, they pay taxes, they revitalize neighborhoods, they sustain entire industries and they make consumer products affordable by their hard work.

In characterizing the new Hispanic immigrants strictly in terms of their first language or their lack of Anglo-Protestant lineage, Huntington neglects one of the most powerful dimensions of Hispanic immigration: Hispanics in America are young, statistically more youthful than the national average age.

Therefore, while Japan, Germany, France and Italy project dramatically slower rates of growth for their populations and labor forces - with unknown implications for their economies - the United States is gaining a youthful workforce, new family formations, emerging markets and energetic, ambitious young leaders.

In his hand-wringing over the tainting of Anglo-Protestant bloodlines, Huntington overlooks the impressive evidence from America's most successful cities that diversity of population is a driving force in the new economy. Diversity has become a building block of the new paradigm of economic development, as the interweaving of backgrounds and perspectives contribute to creativity and the convergence of fresh ideas and productive streams of thought generate economic momentum. Metropolitan areas from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and many smaller cities in between, are experiencing solid population growth, surging retail trade and exploding entrepreneurship due to Hispanic immigration. That immigrant-fueled diversity is also making it possible for the United States to build bridges of commercial and cultural exchange to other parts of the world.

The greatest error in Huntington's alarmist conclusions, however, is that he misunderstands America's fundamental identity. It is not an identity based on how people look, or what language they learned first, or over how many generations their absorption of Anglo-Protestant values occurred. Rather, America's is an identity based upon acceptance of the rules of law and of democratic processes of lawmaking; of respect for personal liberty and private property; of understanding our system of free enterprise and adopting our national narrative of striving and accomplishment. It has been my experience that those values the newest immigrants accept enthusiastically. After all, those values are why they took the trouble to come.

Henry Cisneros is the chairman and chief executive officer of American CityVista, a joint venture to build homes in the central areas of many of the nation's major metropolitan areas. He formerly was mayor of San Antonio.


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