September 8, 2000


The Changing Face of the Nation

By Stephanie Niedringhaus

In the mid-1990's, a traveling exhibit featuring old elementary school "Dick and Jane" readers was greeted with nostalgia by many white museum goers. The middle-class family of Dick and Jane, complete with their dog Spot and white picket fence, elicited comfortable memories of a time when white European middle-class values and images seemed to represent the United States. For many, life seemed somehow simpler then.

Time moves on, however, and as cultural and population shifts occur, the U.S., like nations worldwide, grapples with the issue of its own identity. Are we a country of immigrants, of native-born, or of hyphenated combinations such as Cuban-American? The only clear answer is that at least demographically, we are no longer the white Euro-dominated society represented by Dick and Jane's family. The face of the U.S, is taking on darker, warmer hues, a polyglot of languages can be heard, and immigrants and movie stars no longer find it obligatory to shorten or anglicize their names. The tapestry of our society is becoming increasingly diverse, and a new nation of greater depth is emerging.

Movement of Peoples

What accounts for these changes? The most important causes are a global economy and widespread disparities among countries in job and income opportunities. In 1970, foreign-born residents accounted for only 5 percent of the population, but that number has been rising steadily and now stands at more than 9 percent. By 1995, there were 25 million residents born outside the U.S, the highest number in U.S. history.

This increase has been accompanied by dramatic changes in immigrants' countries of origin. In 1950, 89 percent of foreign-born documented residents came from Canada and Europe. By 1970 that figure had dropped to two-thirds, and in 1990 it stood at 26 percent. Meanwhile, immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean rose steadily from 6 percent in 1950 to 19 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 1990. Asian-born immigrants accounted for one quarter of the 1990 totals, and 6 percent came from Africa and other parts of the world.

The immigration experience in this modern age differs from that of just a generation ago. Leaving one's homeland is no longer considered a one-way ticket to a new land. Technological, advances allow immigrants to maintain close ties with their countries of birth. Hometown newspapers in Lima and Cairo are easily read on the world Wide Web, jets crisscross the globe, and cousins in Taiwan are just a phone call or e-mail away. English-only movements and continuing references to the "melting pot" no longer reflect the realities of modern immigrants' global ties.

Today's immigrants are also younger than in the past. From 1970 to 1990, the median age of immigrants dropped from 52 to 37 years old. Mexicans, Salvadorans and Vietnamese had the younger populations, with a median age of about 30. This is significant both in terms of employment statistics and birthrates. During the 1990s, 37 percent of U.S. population growth occurred among immigrants, compared with only 28 percent in the first decade of the century. Declining birthrates among native-born residents, combined with higher birthrates among today's immigrants, are responsible for the change.

Economic Effects of Increasing Immigration

Numerous studies have examined the fiscal impact of today's higher immigration rates. These studies have shown repeatedly that, despite fears among many U.S.-born residents that immigrants are a drain on the economy, the exact opposite is true. Immigration raised national economic output, by adding both to the domestic workforce and to the consumption of goods.

The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found in 1997 that an average immigrant family paid approximately $80,000 more in taxes than it received in government benefits over a lifetime. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, immigrants who assume citizenship typically pay more in taxes than people born in the U.S. It is estimated that in 1997 immigrant households paid approximately $133 billion in taxes to federal, state and local governments.

One reason that the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based education and advocacy organization, characterizes immigration as "a fiscal bargain for native-born U.S. taxpayers" is that most immigrants arrive here during their prime working years, after having had their education and early upbringing expenses paid in their homelands. Immigrants are also major net contributors to the Social Security and Medicare programs since only 3 percent arrive in the U.S. after the age of 65.

From the vantage point of the immigrants themselves, not all of the economic news is rosy. In general, the best predictors of immigrants' economic success are their education, skills and ability to speak English. As immigration rates have increased, so has the wage gap between U.S.-born and foreign-born residents. In 1970 the wage gap between men in the two groups was 10 percent in 1990. Annual earnings showed an even wider disparity—from 19 percent in 1970 to 35 percent in 1990.

These disparities become still more dramatic when we look at countries of origin. Mexican males who arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s earned an average annual salary of $14,251 in 1990, compared with $37,555 for U.S.-born males. In contrast, immigrants from Europe and Canada earned an average of $41,957. U.S.-born women earned an average of $20,196 in 1990, while immigrant women from Mexico earned only $8,738.

According to a study released in September 1999 by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, the poverty rate for immigrant households grew from 15.5 percent in 1979 to 18.8 percent in 1989, and to 21.8 percent in 1997. During that same period, the poverty rate among the U.S.-born population remained relatively constant at approximately 12 percent.

U.S. Policies

Despite demonstrated positive effects of increased immigration on the U.S. economy, government policies toward immigrants have varied greatly over the years, reflecting, at times, nativist fears and simple prejudice. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, restricted the immigration of people from China and prohibited their acquisition of U.S. citizenship.

In recent years a number of legislative actions had a significant impact on immigrants in the U.S. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 started the practice of employer sanctions for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants, and 1997 legislation greatly increased enforcement activities by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, both in the workplace and elsewhere. Even low-level INS inspectors at ports of entry now have the authority to exclude immigrants through a process called "expedites exclusion." This power was formerly reserved for immigration judges. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the INS now has more armed agents than any other federal law enforcement force.

An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (2/8/98) cited a particularly disturbing example of INS enforcement activities. During the summer of 1997, Chandler Arizona, police received help from Border Patrol agents in removing Mexicans who did not "conform" with Chandler's downtown revitalization plans. Together, they detained and harassed hundred of people while demanding proof of citizenship. Two little U.S.-born Mexican-American girls were so frightened by the activities that they refused to leave their homes without having their birth certificated pinned to their dresses by their mothers.

Congress has pressured the INS and other agencies to maintain tighter control over immigrants. A documented immigrant from Mexico living in Texas for 30 years was recently threatened with deportation over a long-ago driving-under-the-influence conviction. Many U.S. citizens who wish to marry non-citizens find the process becoming increasingly burdensome and expensive.

The impact of 1996 welfare reform legislation has been particularly severe for immigrants according to several studies, including NETWORK's Welfare Reform Watch Project. Undocumented immigrants were already ineligible for most government assistance programs, but after welfare reform, access to assistance was also restricted severely for documented immigrants.

U.S. Immigration and the Latino Population

For no group have changes in U.S. policies and immigration patterns been more dramatic than for Latinos, who currently make up 11 percent of the country's population. By 2050, projections are that one in four people in the U.S. will be Latino. Roughly half of today's Latinos were born outside the U.S.

Reflecting a rich and diverse history, the story of U.S. Latinos can be traced through the establishment of the Spanish empire in the Western Hemisphere. Most of today's Latinos trace their origins to indigenous peoples who came under Spanish rule. As such, their roots in this hemisphere are far deeper than those of later immigrants from Northern Europe.

Almost one-third of the current U.S. was Mexican territory until the land was seized militarily by the U.S. government in 1848. During the 20th century, Mexican descendants in the Southwest and Latinos throughout the U.S. have been joined by growing numbers of immigrants from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Reacting to repressive immigration policies and other manifestations of prejudice, Latinos have a long history of activism on behalf of justice, as chronicled by Chicana activist Elizabeth Martínez in her 1998 book De Colores Means All of Us—Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century. According to Martinez, Mexican-Americans responded to U.S. colonization by organizing large-scale strikes of agricultural workers and miners, creating mutual aid societies and other actions. During the 1960s, thousands of Latino students demanded changes in discriminatory education policies, while other Latinos worked to recover lost New Mexico land grants, formed a Chicano electoral party called La Raza Unida, organized to abolish police abuse, worked for health-care needs, and supported César Chávez's efforts to benefit farmworkers. Many activists were jailed, beaten and killed.

Today, Latino activists work for immigration, education, healthcare and other reforms. They also participate in movements to alleviate poverty that affects a disproportionate number of Latino households. Not only have Latinos been particularly hard hit by welfare reform legislation, but they are also more likely to be counted among the working poor. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 1998 median weekly earnings for all workers over the age of 16 were $572 or $30,000 a year. Hispanic median earnings, in contrast, were $398 a week or $21,000 a year.

Of course, many Latinos have also settled firmly into the middle and upper classes, founding successful businesses, becoming artists, and distinguishing themselves in a myriad of ways. According to Representative Lucille Royball-Allard (D-CA), "The Hispanic community is very proud that we have more Medal of Honor recipients that any other ethnic group, that we are doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals."

As the U.S. approaches the 2000 elections, politicians grow increasingly aware that they must be proactive in reaching out to Latinos. On September 15, Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus dinner for the first time, along with Vice President Gore. On the same evening, Texas Governor George W. Bush celebrated Mexican Independence at a Dieciseis de Septiembre party in Detroit. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee was finalizing plans to run the first GOP television ads aimed at Latino voters in ten years. The nationwide Latino vote is expected to reach 5.5 million next year, and, because they are willing to cross party lines and large numbers live in key electoral states, their preferences could influence critical races. Politicians everywhere are brushing up on Spanish.

Looking Toward the Future

In the late 18th century, up to 20 languages could be heard among the populace of our young nation. Today, the number of languages heard has been multiplied many times over, and the workforce is bolstered each day by new talent and energy from abroad. The contributions of immigrant artists, scientists and intellectuals are an integral part of U.S. culture, and immigrant voices for justice are becoming an increasingly important component of the political landscape.

Whether refugee, adventurer or someone in search of economic opportunities, new immigrants bring gifts and vitality that enrich U.S. society. As the 21st century dawns, their continuing contributions bode well for this ever-evolving nation.

Stephanie Niedringhaus is NETWORK's Communication Coordinator. Contributing to the article were NETWORK board members Beatriz Zapata, CSJ, Catholic Charities Immigration Program Director, Salina, Kansas, and Maria L. Gonzalez, Director, Center for Academic Achievement, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, TX. Photos by Earl Dotter.

(Reprinted from NETWORK Connection, November/December 1999)

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