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Perspectives: The Human Challenge

Most people who live in the United States agree that America is a nation of immigrants. During the course of the country's history, our "melting pot" culture has spoken to generations of people seeking a better life for their family. Regardless of how long one's lineage has existed here, whether thousands of years if Native American or a few months if a recent émigré, we all share the same passion for democracy and the pursuit of happiness.

That's why I take this opportunity to voice my concerns about the controversial views put forth by Samuel P. Huntington in "The Hispanic Challenge," published in Foreign Policy magazine by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Although the information presented is based on hard data, his personal "spin" on the current and future status of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. is terribly divisive and attacks one of our society's greatest strengths--our diversity. Just as Huntington exercised his first amendment right to free speech, I will do the same.

Taking the Challenge

I must admit that until my managing editor sent me the link with a short article summary, I was not familiar with Huntington or his writings, but this blurb was enough to get my attention:

The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves--from Los Angeles to Miami--and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.

After taking some time to read the essay, I wanted to know more about the author. Samuel P. Huntington is an Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor and chair of the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies at Harvard University. He has published other works such as his 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Reconsidering Immigration: Is Mexico a Special Case? written for the Center for Immigration Studies in 2000.

Although I don't agree with many of the views offered in "The Hispanic Challenge," I'm glad it was written because it sparks debate and intellectual curiosity. Believe it or not, many people share the same views even if they don't admit it. The best way to confront the issue is to put everything on the table and invite rational discussion. To read other responses to the essay, please see the text box below.

Other Rebuttals

- Daniel W. Drezner

- James Joyner

- David Adesnik

- The Economist

- "Immigration issues in the U.S. Part II: A Response to Samuel Huntington's ?The Hispanic Challenge'"

- Los Angeles Times

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The "Challenge" is much too long for me to provide excerpts and commentary on each disputed assertion, so I'd like to address a few of the "big picture" topics. These include immigrant numbers, language, and tolerance.

Population Explosion

This particular quote seems to encompass the crux of his paper and all of the subtopics.

In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's 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.

As mentioned earlier, America was built on the backs of immigrants. Although he doesn't say we should "shut the door" to prevent more Mexican immigrants from entering the country, he implies that something must be done to stem the tide. He admits the logistics of policing the 3200-kilometer border would be impossible, but even if we could do it, do we have the right to stop accepting foreigners because we are afraid of becoming outnumbered?

From the beginning mankind has been a wanderer and has settled around the globe. Does he think things will change now just because we will it so? Other countries have to deal with immigrants from former communist-block countries, political refugees, and those fleeing war and famine. The U.S. isn't the only sovereign state having to deal with large numbers of immigrants.

When I asked Emilio Bruna, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of wildlife ecology and conservation and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, whether Mexicans were changing the "flavor" of America he said, "We ARE changing the flavor of America and though Huntington may not like to admit it, many of those changes are for the better. The contributions of Latino immigrants to the development of U.S. science and technology have been impressive, considering the barriers many have had to overcome. As a Mexican I am particularly proud of Mario Molina's 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and I'm sure his students are glad he chose to teach and conduct his research at MIT."

Huntington offers more data on birth rates and the continuing trend:

In 2002, fertility rates in the United States were estimated at 1.8 for non-Hispanic whites, 2.1 for blacks, and 3.0 for Hispanics.

By 2002, more than 70 percent of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District were Hispanic, predominantly Mexican, with the proportion increasing steadily; 10 percent of schoolchildren were non-Hispanic whites. In 2003, for the first time since the 1850s, a majority of newborn children in California were Hispanic.

Huntington's information is backed up by census data. The number of native-born Caucasians in the U.S. continues to decrease. In 1999, Caucasians represented 72%, African Americans 12.1%, Hispanics 11.5%, Asian or Pacific Islander 3.8%, and Native Americans less than 1%. But, by 2025 the U.S. population is projected to have 62% Caucasian, 18% Hispanic, and 13% African American with Hispanics comprising almost half of the population by 2050 according to " The Changing American Pie, 1999 and 2025" from the Population Reference Bureau, a Social Science Data Analysis Network. However, Huntington ignores the fact that almost two-thirds of Earth's population is brown. Although those of European descent are the majority in the U.S., they are the minority on the rest of the planet.

I also asked Jabbar Bennett, Ph.D., a research and science specialist in the Office for Diversity and Community Partnership (DCP) at Harvard Medical School, to comment on Huntington's use of population data. He says, "We should use current census data, racial and ethnic population distribution forecasts, and factors such as fertility rates to our benefit. We need to put policies in place that support these growing populations of people who may be uninsured or underinsured. We need to form policies that will protect these Americans and their children that will ensure their rights to health care and education as citizens of this country just like any other taxpayer. Adding to the list of existing disparities in health and health care by denying immigrants their essential rights is not something the U.S. government should contribute to."

Huntington's article goes on to point out individual state increases in the Hispanic population from the recent past. These also seem to confirm future projections.

While the absolute numbers are often small, the states with the largest percentage increases in Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000 were, in decreasing order: North Carolina (449 percent increase), Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Nevada, and Alabama (222 percent).

Because I live in North Carolina, I've seen this increase first-hand, but a Public Broadcasting System documentary titled " Matters of Race, The Divide," helped me to really understand the reason so many Mexicans are moving to these states, particularly North Carolina. The film, directed and produced by John Valdez and associate produced by Malinda Campbell, discussed the fluid situation in Siler City, North Carolina (see the text box below). A decade ago Siler City was like any other small town in the South. It was largely composed of Caucasian and African-American working-class people, but now Mexicans have become a major part of the local fabric. This migration started when a group of Mexicans came to town looking for work, but because the town's industrial plants were hiring and the new immigrants were making a living and sending wages back home, word spread that jobs were available.

Matters of Race, The Divide

"Black Issues Forum," a local television program shown on UNC-TV, hosted by Natalie Bullock Brown, interviewed Valdez and Campbell about what they learned during filming of this documentary. A transcript of that interview gives insight into what's happening in small towns across America in reference to Mexican immigrants.

"The Divide" brings us to one of the real reasons for the immigration explosion--jobs. Many Mexicans do the jobs most Americans wouldn't touch. I was always taught there is dignity in all work, so we citizens shouldn't trash a job because we think it is beneath us. What would any human do if they were poor, hungry, and watching their children starve? We all need to work to secure basic needs, so why deny a group or groups who are willing to work for it?

¿Habla Español o Inglés?

Huntington acknowledges a major shift in pre-World War I immigrant languages spoken in the U.S. such as Italian, Polish, Russian, and German to the present influx of Spanish, but continues to color the debate with citizenship issues.

A persuasive case can be made that, in a shrinking world, all Americans should know at least one important foreign language--Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Russian, Arabic, Urdu, French, German, or Spanish--so as to understand a foreign culture and communicate with its people. It is quite different to argue that Americans should know a non-English language in order to communicate with their fellow citizens.

When I took a foreign language in school, we were taught the reason behind it was to be able to "communicate" with others regardless of where they were from or their citizen status. His close-minded comments, however, could easily be applied to other ethnic groups. For example, most large American cities have a "Chinatown" section, and any English-speaking person visiting this area would be hard pressed to see English written on billboards or businesses or heard it spoken most of the time. If American-Chinese immigration numbers had risen to the same level as Mexicans, would we be talking about them the same way?

One might suppose that, with the rapid expansion of the Mexican immigrant community, people of Mexican origin would have less incentive to become fluent in and to use English in 2000 than they had in 1970.

Huntington fails to give both sides of the story when it comes to language. He acts as if Mexicans are thumbing their noses at English, but actually many Mexican immigrants are trying to learn English, to make their transition into U.S. society easier. According to Mary Ann Zehr's January 2003 article in Education Week, " Poll: Immigrants Value Speaking English," 90% of the 1002 foreign-born immigrants who took part in the phone survey believed that learning English was important in getting a job or doing well in the U.S. In addition, two-thirds said, "the U.S. should expect all immigrants who don't speak English to learn it."

The same article also states, "Mexican and Caribbean immigrants are more supportive of bilingual education than Europeans and East Asians, but a majority of each subgroup surveyed still favors classes only in English." So, Latino parents want their children to learn English just as much as Huntington does, but they still want to retain the right to speak their native tongue, just like other immigrant groups in this country.

Will this work? In an article published by the Advocates of Children , written by Catherine Mann, the Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in New York City has been successful in urging Latino students to move from bilingual classes to English-only classes. Some 86% graduate on time and most go on to attend college. They even offer "English as a Second Language" courses on Saturdays to parents and students.

Well, if native Spanish speakers are trying to learn English, what are native English speakers doing? Spanish continues to lead all languages in high school and college according to a 2003 article by Cindy Rodriguez published on Out of the 6 million high school students who took a foreign language, 4 million took Spanish with French being the next popular with 1 million.

Also, approximately 700,000 college students take Spanish courses each year, compared with 500,000 studying all of the other languages combined. Finally, the nation's largest Spanish-language school, Command Spanish, has seen its enrollment double between 1997 and 2002 (40,000 completed coursework in 2002). Other Spanish-language schools are opening in small and medium-sized cities all over the country.

Being fluent in other languages is beneficial, as Bruna can attest. "The fact that my students and I speak Spanish in my classroom and lab [as well as Portuguese and English] can only enhance the quality of their education." Bennett concurs by saying, "It is true that there are economic and political advantages to being bilingual, simply meaning that you are able to communicate with audiences that constitute a large portion of the population, that others cannot. This makes you more marketable and aids in your survival, prominence, and success. To me this is simple arithmetic, not part of a ploy to undermine the entire U.S. political, social, cultural, and financial infrastructure."

Love Thy Neighbor

Huntington agrees that after the civil rights movement and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Americans see themselves as a multiethnic and multiracial nation, which means by definition having "many ethnicities and races," so how does this square with his view that Mexicans are threatening the situation? This appears to contradict the basis of his argument.

Also, according to the last sidebar in the article, "The Threat of White Nativism," there is a movement in America called white nativism which is "an anti-Hispanic, anti-black, and anti-immigrant movement composed largely of white, working- and middle-class males, protesting their job losses to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, and the displacement of their language." Although Huntington does not place himself in this category, one does wonder whether he is a champion of the cause or a purely objective political analyst reporting the data as he sees it.

Finally, I have to address one important point Huntington makes early in his declaration. He provides six key elements of Anglo-Protestant culture and lists Christianity and religious commitment as two of them. Yes, the U.S. is and always has been largely Christian, but he fails to emphasize the one tenet that the New Testament commands, that we MUST love one another and help each other. We are all children of the most high and no one is better than the next person. We truly do have more similarities than differences. Sadly, we humans haven't learned our lessons from the past. Cultural, social, or racial clashes won't solve anything; they'll just make matters worse. If we don't learn to live together, we'll all die together.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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