September 11, 2006

The Special Case of Mexican Immigration - Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington

America is often described as a country defined by commitment to a creed formulated in the writings of our Founders. But American identity is only partly a matter of creed. For much of our history we also defined ourselves in racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural terms.

Before the Revolution we thought of ourselves in religious terms: 98 percent of Americans were Protestants, and Catholic Spain and France were our enemies. We also thought of ourselves in racial and ethnic terms: 80 percent of Americans at the time of the Revolution were from the British Isles. The other 20 percent were largely German and Dutch.

America is also often described as a nation of immigrants. We should distinguish immigrants, however, from settlers. Immigrants are people who leave one society and move to a recipient society. Early Americans did not immigrate to an existing society; they established new societies, in some cases for commercial reasons, more often for religious reasons. It was the new societies they created, basically defined by Anglo-Protestant culture, that attracted subsequent generations of immigrants to this country.

Demographer Campbell Gibson has done a very interesting analysis of the evolution of the United States’ population. He argues that if no immigrants had come to this country after 1790, the population of the United States in 1990 would have been just about half of what it actually was. Thus, the American people are literally only half an immigrant people.

There have been great efforts in our history to limit immigration. In only one decade in the nineteenth century did the annual intake of immigrants amount to more than 1 percent of the population each year. In three other decades it was slightly over eight-tenths of 1 percent, while in six decades it was less than four-tenths of 1 percent. Obviously immigration has been tremendously important to this country, but the foreign-born population has exceeded 10 percent of our total population only in the seven census years from 1860 to 1930. (When the 2000 census results come out we will be back above the 10 percent level again.)

As I began to investigate the question of immigration, I came to the conclusion that our real problem is not so much immigration as assimilation. Seventy-five or 100 years ago there were great pressures to ensure that immigrants assimilated to the Anglo-Protestant culture, work ethic, and principles of the American creed. Now we are uncertain what immigrants should assimilate to. And that is a serious problem.

As I went further in my research, I concluded there was a still more significant problem, a problem that encompasses immigration, assimilation, and other things, too—what I will refer to as the Mexican problem. Much of what we now consider to be problems concerning immigration and assimilation really concern Mexican immigration and assimilation. Mexican immigration poses challenges to our policies and to our identity in a way nothing else has in the past.

There are five distinctive characteristics of the Mexican question which make it special. First, Mexican immigration is different because of contiguity. We have thought of immigration as being symbolized by Ellis Island, and perhaps now by Kennedy Airport. But Mexicans do not come across 2,000 miles of ocean. They come, often easily, across 2,000 miles of land border.

Our relationship with Mexico in this regard is in many respects unique in the world. No other First World country has a land frontier with a Third World country—much less one of 2,000 miles. The significance of this border is enhanced by the economic differences between the two countries. The income gap between Mexico and us is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world.

The second distinctive aspect of today’s Mexican immigration concerns numbers. Mexican immigration during the past several decades has been very substantial. In 1998 Mexican immigrants constituted 27 percent of the total foreign-born population in this country; the next largest two contingents, Filipinos and Chinese, each amounted to only 4 percent. Mexicans constituted two-thirds of Spanish-speaking immigrants, who in turn were over half of all new arrivals between 1970 and 1996. Our post-1965 wave of immigration differs from previous waves in having a majority from a single non-English language group.

A third distinguishing characteristic of this Mexican immigration is illegality. Illegal immigration is overwhelmingly a post-1965 and Mexican phenomenon. In 1995, according to one report, Mexicans made up 62 percent of the immigrants who entered the United States illegally. In 1997, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated Mexican illegals were nine times as numerous as the next largest contingent, from El Salvador.

The next important characteristic of Mexican immigration has been its concentration in a particular region. Mexican immigrants are heavily concentrated in the Southwest and particularly in southern California. This has very real consequences. Our Founders emphasized that immigrants would have to be dispersed among what they described as the English population in this country. To the extent that we have a large regional concentration of immigrants, it is a departure from our usual pattern.

Now obviously we have previously had high concentrations of immigrants in particular areas, such as the Irish in Boston, but by and large the immigrants have dispersed to different cities, and those cities have simultaneously hosted many different immigrant groups. This is the case still in New York, where there are many immigrants today, but no group that dominates. In Southern California, though, two-thirds or more of all the children in school are Spanish speaking. As Abe Lowenthal and Katrina Burgess write in The California-Mexico Connection, "No school system in a major U.S. city has ever experienced such a large influx of students from a single foreign country. The schools of Los Angeles are becoming Mexican."

Finally, there is the matter of the persistence of Mexico’s large immigration. Previous waves of immigration fairly soon came to an end. The huge 1840s and ’50s influxes from Ireland and Germany were drastically reduced by the Civil War and the easing of the Irish potato famine. The big wave at the turn of the century came to an end with World War I and the restrictive legislation in 1924.

These breaks greatly helped to facilitate the assimilation of the newcomers. In contrast, there does not seem to be any prospect of the current wave, begun over three decades ago, coming to an end soon. Mexican immigration may eventually subside as the Mexican birth rate slows, and possibly as a result of long-term economic development in Mexico. But those effects will only occur over a very long term. For the time being we are faced with substantial continued immigration from Mexico.

Sustained high levels of immigration build on themselves. After the first immigrants come from a country, it is easier for others from that country to come. Immigration is not a self-limiting process, it is a self-enhancing one.

And the longer immigration continues, the more difficult politically it is to stop. Leaders of immigrant organizations and interest groups develop a vested interest in expanding their own constituency. Immigration develops political support, and becomes more difficult to limit or reshape.

For all these reasons Mexican immigration is unique. What are the implications of this for assimilation?

The answer appears uncertain. In education and economic activity, Mexicans rate much lower than other immigrant groups. The rate of intermarriage between Hispanics and other Americans appears to be decreasing rather than increasing. (In 1977, 31 percent of all Hispanic marriages were interethnic; in 1994, 25.5 percent were.) With respect to language, I suspect Mexicans will in large part follow the pattern of earlier immigrants, with the third generation being fluent in English, but quite possibly, unlike previous third generations, also fluent in their ancestral language.

All of the characteristics I have mentioned lead to the possibility of a cultural community evolving in the Southwest in which people could pursue their lives within an overwhelmingly Mexican community, without ever having to speak English. This has already happened with the Cubans in Miami, and it could be reproduced on a larger and more significant scale in the Southwest. We know in the coming decades people of Hispanic origin will be a majority of the people in California and eventually in other southwestern states. America is moving in the direction of becoming a bilingual and bicultural society.

Without Mexican immigration, the overall level of immigration to this country would be perhaps two-thirds of what it has been—near the levels recommended by Barbara Jordan’s immigration commission a few years ago. Illegal entries would be relatively minor. The average skill and education level of immigrants would be the highest in American history, and the much-debated balance of economic benefits versus costs of immigration would tilt heavily toward the positive side. The bilingual education issue would fade from our agenda. A major potential challenge to the cultural, and conceivably political, integrity of the United States would disappear.

Mexico and Mexican immigration, however, will not disappear, and learning to live with both may become more and more difficult. President-elect Vicente Fox wants to remove all restrictions on the movement of Mexicans into the United States.

In almost every recent year the Border Patrol has stopped about 1 million people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally from Mexico. It is generally estimated that about 300,000 make it across illegally. If over 1 million Mexican soldiers crossed the border, Americans would treat it as a major threat to their national security and react accordingly. The invasion of over 1 million Mexican civilians is a comparable threat to American societal security, and Americans should react against it with comparable vigor.

Mexican immigration looms as a unique and disturbing challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity, and potentially to our future as a country.

Samuel Huntington is Weatherhead professor of government at Harvard and a member of the Council of Academic Advisers of the American Enterprise Institute