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Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco

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Memo to Bald Men

Posted: 08/13/11 09:59 AM ET

The absurdist virus that plagues Washington evokes the Borgean image of two bald men furiously fighting over a comb: anachronistic, irrelevant, and sad.

Washington's absurdist dystopia is in full display in the gridlock over immigration. Latinos should take notice because immigration defines the Latino experience. While Spanish was spoken in what is now the United States well before John Harvard founded the College -- as I used to tell my Harvard undergraduates when I taught the first course on Latino Cultures in the history of the University, the fact remains that two thirds of the approximately 50 million Latinos in the U.S. today are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The debate over immigration in the United States is above all a debate about Latinos. While immigrants come from all over the world, one third come from Mexico and 55% originate in Latin America. The vast majority of Latinos are citizens or permanent lawful immigrants, yet Latinos are also overrepresented in the unauthorized immigrant population.

Mass Latino immigration is closely bound with globalization. These twin forces activate feelings of vertigo -- the dizziness that comes with a sense of losing control. While on the surface the debate over immigration maybe framed by legitimate questions (should the U. S. cut or increase the number of immigrants it accepts in times of severe economic crisis? What are the best ways of protecting U.S. borders in a time of war and global terrorism? Should family ties still determine who gets in or should "brain-power," skills, and education, be the key to open the gate?), below the surface lurks a dark iceberg of nativism waiting to sink the next ship of new arrivals.
Taking the long view, immigration's inherent duality proves enduring: we celebrate it looking backwards but fear it in the here and now. Latinos are the here and now. A hundred years ago, there was panic as unprecedented numbers of poor peasants from Eastern Europe (many of them Jews), from Ireland and from the Mediterranean (most of them Catholics) came out of ships and began settling in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in Boston, and elsewhere. Their religions, their languages, their feared atavistic criminal impulses, alas, their very essence, coalesced around the archetype of the immigrant as 'Other': incommensurable and beyond any hope of blending in or melting down no matter how much heat the melting pot could generate.

Today we can look back fondly and marvel at the epic journey by which Emma Lazarus' "wretched refuse" became the backbone of the American middle class. The feared Jews and Catholics of yesteryear became among the most successful of America's white ethnics. Retrospective distortions and photoshopped history aside, there is much to admire. Irony of all ironies: Catholics and Jews now form the entire roster of the United States Supreme Court, without a single WASP as a sitting Justice. "Only-in-America" indeed. But the teary-eyed retrospective focus is not easy to sustain in troubled times. When we turn to the here and now, the blinding light of sun-drenched Arizona comes into sharp focus. In Arizona, as in Alabama and Georgia -- states in an Olympic competition to put in place the most outrageous anti immigrant legislation in recent history, the immigrant Other of yesteryear is in full display.

Alas the fury of the bald men is anachronistic. For the first time in a generation, there is a significant reduction in the flows of immigrants into the U.S. The new numbers tell a dramatic story. While in the year 2000 there were approximately 1.7 million border-crossing apprehensions, by 2010 the number of apprehensions had dropped to 463,000. Immigration scholars, Douglas Massey among them, estimate that the net traffic of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico "has gone to zero and it is probably a little bit negative." Concurrently, the Obama administration's intensification of the Bush campaign continues to deport the largest number of unauthorized immigrants in decades. What has led to the dramatic reduction in unauthorized entries and the overall decline in the total numbers of Latino immigrants is a combination of the deep economic crisis, the enhanced border control program, and the intensification of deportations under President Obama as well as changing economic, demographic and social conditions in the sending countries -- Mexico above all.

Taking the long view, even without any further migration, the U. S. has now entered one of greatest demographic transformation in a century. Latinos drive that change.

Memo to bald men: integration not immigration is the name of the game moving forward.

The citizen children of immigrants, Latinos above all, are the fastest growing sector of the child population. Latinos are literally the future of the U.S. For the first time in U.S. history the children of Latinos and Asians now account for all growth in the child population. New data show that between 2000 and 2010 the number of Latino (and Asian) children skyrocketed by more than 5.5 million while the number of white non-Hispanic babies declined by over four million. Immigrant-origin children will account for one in three children under the age of 18 by 2020. As of 2011, 23.7 percent of school-age children in the U.S. were the children of immigrants with the majority (77%) second-generation citizen children and the rest (23%) foreign-born. Approximately 10.7% of all public school students are classified as English Language Learners. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that between 1979 and 2008, the percentage of children who spoke a second language at home increased from 9% to 21%. Of those speaking a language other than English at home, 62% speak Spanish. The data on emerging adults are also breathtaking: thirty percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are first- or second-generation immigrants.

When they stop fighting the bald men running Washington will clumsily rush close the barn's door -- but it is too late. The future is galloping ahead and its deep imprints have Latino written all over. In future blogs I will discuss whether Latinos will follow the course of the Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans of last century or whether Latinos will have to forge a new path for a time of deep economic crisis, cultural malaise, and unprecedented generational asymmetries.

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco's most recent book is Writing Immigration