News Column

Who Are We?

July/August 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Henry Cisneros

Henry Cisneros
Henry Cisneros

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' 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 a nation of two cultures and two languages.

Professor 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, they were always greeted by nativist protests against the different languages, appearances, religions, and lifestyles, and against the workplace competitiveness of the new arrivals.

But Professor Huntington says that his analysis is different because this wave of immigration is so profoundly different than any before it and therefore profoundly more dangerous to American identity. He postulates six reasons why he believes the successes of past immigration are irrelevant to the present:

Contiguity: The United States shares a porous 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

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

Illegality: Estimates of the number of illegal Mexican immigrants range as high as 350,000 per year for the 1990s. This indicates that today an estimated 4.8 million Mexicans make up 69 percent of the illegal population.

Regional Concentration: Proportions of Hispanics continue to grow in already densely Hispanic regions, such as the Southwest, particularly California.

Persistence: The current wave of Hispanic immigration shows no signs of slowing.

Historical Presence: Major parts of the ... Southwest were once part of Mexico, [so] "Mexican Americans enjoy a sense of being on their own turf that is not shared by other immigrants."

[But] it is in drawing his over-arching conclusions from these six points that Professor Huntington goes badly off-course 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.

Immigrants have always come to America because they seek a better life. Today's Hispanic immigrants uproot themselves not in order to re-create their own country in the United States but to learn America's ways of success and progress. In amazingly few years, Hispanic immigrants and their children adapt to the American way in language, work practices, and lifestyles. They serve patriotically in America's armed forces; they pay taxes, revitalize neighborhoods, sustain entire industries, and 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, Professor Huntington neglects one of the most powerful dimensions of Hispanic immigration. Hispanics in America are young, statistically more youthful than the population in general. 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, emerging markets, and energetic, ambitious young leaders.

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.

The greatest error in Professor Huntington's alarmist conclusions, however, is that he misunderstands America's fundamental identity. It is not 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 the 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 the newest immigrants accept those values enthusiastically. After all, those values are why they took the trouble to come.

Full Text of Letter from Henry Cisneros >>


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