You may be familiar with Samuel Huntington. He's the political scientist who, in his last years, offered dire warnings that Hispanic and especially Mexican immigrants behave profoundly differently than immigrants coming to the U.S. from other countries, that they stubbornly refuse to integrate to such a degree that they will ultimately "divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages." Huntington referred to this problem as "The Hispanic Challenge."
For years, the dominant trope in the media followed Huntington's line. It didn't matter that scholars were demonstrating that Huntington was wrong. As early as 2007 there was this article in the academic journal Perspectives in Politics called "Testing Huntington: Is Hispanic Immigration a Threat to American Identity?" In short, the answer was: No. The authors found:
Hispanics acquire English and lose Spanish rapidly beginning with the second generation... Moreover, a clear majority of Hispanics rejects a purely ethnic identification and patriotism grows from one generation to the next. At present, a traditional pattern of political assimilation appears to prevail.
But this wasn't all that sexy a narrative, especially with commentators like Pat Buchanan, and politicians like former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) (a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008), screaming about how Latinos aren't learning English enough, aren't loyal to our country enough and aren't integrating into American society enough. In recent months, however, we're starting to see a change in the media narrative.
I was shocked in January when the 2007 article I referred to above served as the guts of a post at the Washington Post's "Wonkblog." But still, that was just a blog post.
This week, in the Sunday New York Times, there appeared a lengthy piece in the Week in Review section by NYT Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt called "Hispanics, the New Italians." This was a clever rhetorical move, making the point that Hispanics, the "new" and "different" immigrants who supposedly posed an intractable challenge to the melting pot, are actually no different from the "classic" white ethnic immigrant groups of the original era from which the melting pot metaphor originated.
Leonhardt brings up Huntington and, crucially, connects the whole issue to the current debate in Congress over a comprehensive immigration reform package.
"Yet as the Senate begins to debate a major immigration bill, we already know a great deal about how Latinos are faring with that challenge: they're meeting it, by and large. Whatever Washington does in coming months, a wealth of data suggests that Latinos, who make up fully half of the immigration wave of the past century, are already following the classic pattern for American immigrants."
Huntington cited a Pew Research center report that demonstrates the point in great detail, and also summarized another report, this one by James P. Smith of the RAND corporation on labor patterns, which found "the trajectory of Latinos most closely resembles that of Italians, who also arrived with comparatively little education." Bringing it all together, Leonhardt interviewed Professor Alan Kraut, a major scholar of immigration history at American University, who confirmed this take as well:
"These fears about immigrants have been voiced many times in American history, and they've never proven true.... It doesn't happen immediately, but everything with Latinos points to a very typical pattern of integration in American life in a generation or two."
When the media is filled with stories, often largely anecdotal but highly effective, about immigrants not learning English, or waving Mexican flags at immigration rallies, it makes people on the fence turn against immigration reform. But the opposite is true when such people feel that immigrants are integrating, assimilating, Americanizing. Seeing that makes people on the fence feel more positive about immigrants, and thus about reform. Let's hope we see more of these kinds of pieces in the days and weeks leading up to the debate on Capitol Hill.