George J Borjas
Copyright UMI Company 1998. All Rights Reserved. Copyright National Review, Inc. May 18, 1998
Strangers among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America, by Roberto Suro (Knopf, 341 pp., $26.95)
THE growth of the United States' Hispanic population in the past three decades is likely to stand as one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in this country's history The Bureau of the Census did not even have an official designation for a person of "Hispanic" origin as recently as 1960.
Things have changed, and they changed quickly. The resurgence of legal immigration began soon after a new immigration law was enacted in 1965. Meanwhile, the end of the bracero (guest-worker) program in 1964 generated a large flow of illegal aliens from Mexico. In their wisdom, the federal bureaucrats in charge of compiling statistical data proclaimed: "Let there be Hispanics!" and a new minority group was born. Today this group makes up 11 per cent of the U.S. population; and because of high immigration levels and high birth rates, it will reach 20 per cent by 2050 (at that time blacks will account for 12 per cent of the population). In a very short time, the United States has been transformed in ways that only forty years ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Roberto Suro, a respected journalist at the Washington Post, provides an engaging discussion of the social and economic implications of the emergence of the Hispanic minority. And, although I am not sure this is what he intended, his account is quite depressing and rings a loud warning bell.
Suro starts out on a dark note with the story of Imelda, the child of Mexican immigrants who entered the United States illegally. Imelda herself was smuggled across the border when she was a toddler. We first see her on the eve of the traditional coming-out party that celebrates a Mexican girl's 15th birthday and signals to the world that she has now become a young lady. The morning after this happy occasion Imelda has news for her parents: she is pregnant and plans to move in with her boyfriend. When Suro last saw her, Imelda had become a "dimestore Madonna."
The mood does not get much brighter as the story goes along. In anecdote after anecdote, Suro paints a worrisome picture of the Hispanic population. This picture includes teenage pregnancies, gangs, drug dealing, substance abuse, and so on. Almost every anecdote he tells bodes ill for the future of American Hispanics. At the very beginning of the book Suro summarizes the hard lesson Imelda's parents learned at that breakfast table: "Latino immigration delivers short-term gains and has long-term costs."
An exception to this depressing account of downward mobility is Suro's description of the Cuban enclave in Miami. This community contains many upwardly mobile Hispanics, but Suro does not seem to like them very much. (Full disclosure: the author of this review was born in Cuba and as a young boy lived for two years in Miami's Cuban enclave during the early 1960s.) Suro describes a visit to Belen, an elite Catholic school. Belen was originally located in Havana, and was one of the schools that educated Cuba's elite. Castro, in fact, was a Belen alumnus. After the revolution closed down these elite schools in 1961, the Jesuits simply reopened Belen in Miami, where it now caters to the American-born children of the Cuban community.
The young boys in Belen want to go far. But Suro views their ambition with a jaundiced eye. These boys will get ahead because their parents, who are now successful bankers, doctors, and lawyers, will help them get ahead. In Suro's view, the Cuban community is selfish, intolerant, and insular, refusing to help anyone who is not a part of the enclave-particularly Miami's blacks. Cuban culture has a "racist predilection." And why do Cubans succeed in the United States? Because they received a lot of government assistance when they arrived here, and because "thousands of Cuban exiles were either fully employed or received extra income from the Central Intelligence Agency."
Cubans are not the only ones whom Suro views antagonistically. Many of those who criticize current immigration policy come in for a beating, even the much-revered Barbara Jordan. Before her untimely death, Miss Jordan chaired the Commission on Immigration Reform, which recommended a substantial cut in the number of legal immigrants admitted into the country. In Suro's view, she "pawned her gravelly voice" to give respectability to anti-immigration sentiments. Apparently that gravelly voice was good enough for President Clinton, who "took all of 15 minutes" to be convinced that Miss Jordan's recommendations were sound (although Clinton characteristically disowned that support after her death).
Despite these obvious political biases, there is much to learn from Suro's reporting. In a fascinating account of how ethnic networks arise, Suro describes how the migration of one single person from the Totonicapan area of Guatemala in 1978 led to the flow of a large number of Guatemalans into Houston. Suro also recognizes that it is in our interests to stop illegal immigration, and gives a detailed account of the success of the "Hold the Line" operation in El Paso, which reduced the number of illegal entries substantially and was strongly supported even by El Paso's Hispanic community.
Suro's proposed solutions for slowing the illegal flow, however, are not credible. He suggests, for example, that the United States should penalize the illegal aliens caught trying to cross the border, perhaps by putting them in detention for a day or two. But who will pay the detention costs? We all know that it is cheaper to send a child to Harvard than to send a felon to the penitentiary.
In general, Suro is not too keen on cost-benefit analyses. "There are many different ways a society can weigh the advantages and disadvantages of immigration, but putting a price tag on people- regardless of who they are or where they came from-is demagoguery." But Suro neglects to detail the "many different ways" he says we can assess whether immigration is a boon or a bane for the country.
There are also some philosophical issues that are not pursued. For instance, the term Hispanic is at once both uniquely American and profoundly un-American. It is American because it reflects our national passion for categorizing and classifying-even if the classification makes no sense to anyone outside our borders. (Who but Americans would have the chutzpah to gloss over the differences between Venezuelans, Cubans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans or, even more strikingly, to create "Asians" by combining Filipinos, Indians, Japanese, and Chinese?) It is also profoundly un-American. If all men are created equal, why do we need yet another classification of race and ethnicity to further divide us?
Suro begins his book by stating the general theme that "Latino immigration delivers short-term gains and has long-term costs." These gains and costs, in Suro's understanding, are the ones borne by the Hispanic immigrants themselves. If Imelda's parents had not migrated to the United States, they would not have benefited from short-term financial comforts, but they would have avoided the long-term cost of having a "dimestore Madonna" in the household.
But this is only part of the picture. Hispanic immigration generates short-term gains for the United States-there are benefits from an influx of less-skilled workers who can till our fields, work in our factories, and perform service jobs in our homes, restaurants, and hotels. But for our nation there are also long-term costs. We are just beginning to realize the major social and economic role that a new underclass of poor Hispanics may play in the life of the United States throughout the next century.
Mr. Borjas, the Pforzheimer Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, is the author of Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigration on the U.S. Economy.