Hispanic Assimilation

By John Tanton
Volume 2, Number 2 (Winter 1991-1992)
Issue theme: "Getting past the immigration taboo - an international perspective"

I got to know Linda Chavez a bit during the fourteen months that she served as president of U.S.ENGLISH. I was chairman of the board during that time. I write this review in the living room of my home, where she visited my wife and me for discussions, after assuming the U.S.ENGLISH post.

I came to have a solid respect for her. She's bright, tough, writes well, and is well spoken - there are no 'ums or 'ers in Ms. Chavez's vocabulary. She has, in fact, all the qualities that the Manhattan Institute looks for in the authors they sponsor, as they did in this instance. The Institute is not content simply to support a book and then let it contend for attention unaided among the other tens of thousands of titles that appear each year. Rather, they want an attractive, articulate author who can handle the talk circuit, meet the press, or testify before Congress if need be. Ms. Chavez has filled this bill very well, judging from the attention that her book has received. The Institute can chalk up another publishing success.

Out of the Barrio is easy reading. It begins with a good review of the bilingual battleground that is a helpful summary of how the drive for bilingualism and biculturalism got under way. Chavez tells how what started out as a short-term transitional program ended up as a long-term maintenance program, not only for language, but for culture as well. She writes of the cadre of teachers, academics, and publishers that has built up to feed off the federal largesse that goes along with the program.

Next Chavez examines the bilingual ballot provisions of the Voting Right Act, ably boiling down Abigail Thernstrom's 1987 book, Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. What started out as an equal opportunity proposal evolved, with the help of court decisions and administrative rule-making, into an equal results program. The bilingual ballot portion of the Voting Rights Act is up for renewal this year, with an extension proposed to 2007. Some hearings have already been held. We can hope that Chavez will weigh in on this issue with Congress, where the real battle gets fought.

Chavez recognizes, as few other

commentators do, that today's

immigration from Latin America

is different in many ways from

that which came from Europe

at the turn of this century.

Next Chavez turns her attention to the inner workings of the Hispanic lobby. She tells us how groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) were formed and funded, and how they have become self-perpetuating bureaucracies with no constituency among the grassroots Hispanics themselves. For instance, MALDEF has no members, and, if the piper calls the tune, must represent chiefly the Ford Foundation, which for many years has provided the bulk of the MALDEF budget.

In society as well as in physics, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the chapter entitled, The Backlash, Chavez tells how resistance began to develop among the general public to the inroads that were being made by advocates of bilingualism for education and voting. She treats briefly the incident that led to both her and my leaving U.S.ENGLISH. She's more restrained in this than many would have been, but I would still like to correct her statement of my positions. Chavez writes that Tanton favors rigid restriction on immigration, and is particularly anxious to limit the number of low-skilled Latin immigrants coming to the United States. I favor an overall ceiling on immigration of about 300,000 per year, which is the historic average going back many decades. Is this rigid? I do believe we should limit the number of low-skilled immigrants, of whatever nationality, if we hope to compete in world markets. We need a highly skilled work force, not the opposite. What are Chavez's positions on these points? She doesn't tell us.

The word xenophobia also creeps in. In that connection, you may see Roy Beck's essay on pages 144 ff of this issue. Chavez correctly states that current restrictionist sentiments on immigration are in part a response to past high levels of immigration, and to the bilingual ballot and education initiatives.

In the chapter on An Emerging Middle Class, Chavez makes her main argument Hispanics are doing much better than they are given credit for, especially if one desegregates the highly diverse group that travels under this term. Given high levels of immigration in recent years, she states that it is particularly important to separate out recent immigrants from those who have been here for a generation or two. She acknowledges that there are plenty of problems (as there are throughout all sectors of society), but feels that Hispanics are making substantial progress.

The role of immigration in Hispanic affairs is pointed out in many places through the book, and there is a separate chapter entitled, The Immi-grants. It contains a particularly good section on how Hispanic immigrants differ from previous groups. Here Chavez recognizes, as few other commentators do, that today's immigration from Latin America is different in many ways from that which came from Europe at the turn of this century. Closer proximity to home enables return visits; our government offers services in education in foreign languages, chiefly Spanish; Spanish-language radio and television, originating both at home and abroad, all make it easy to keep touch with the original language and culture. She even mentions the moratorium (my term) that very much slowed down immigration from 1925-1950. It consisted of the Immigration Act of 1924, followed by the Great Depression and World War II. Few immigrants came during this 25-year period. This gave a chance for the great engine of assimilation to work.

Ultimately, however, Chavez is defeatist on immigration, feeling that it cannot be controlled. She does not examine what this might mean for Hispanics - and everyone else in the United States - given that the world population is increasing by a quarter of a million persons every day... equivalent to a new Los Angeles every month. She shows no understanding of the scale of the push pressures that are developing around the world. (For instance, the net increase in the work force in the less-developed countries from 1990-2010 will be about 730 million - which is greater than the total current work force in the more developed countries!)

Chavez soundly recommends that

public bi-lingual education

should be short-term and

rapidly transitional to English.

With a detour through the special problems posed by the Puerto Ricans, Chavez comes to her final chapter on a new politics of Hispanic assimilation. It is here that we have the book's greatest anomaly. As to language and culture, Chavez soundly recommends that public bilingual education should be short-term and rapidly transitional to English, and that Hispanics (or anyone else) wishing to maintain their traditional language and culture are welcome to do so - on their own time and at their own expense. As to political participation, Hispanics (like everyone else) should not rely upon the affirmative action of the Voting Rights Act. Concerning higher education, Hispanics will have to acquire it if they wish to have their income levels match those of other groups in the society; and entitlements based on ethnicity are a bad idea.

The anomaly is that in a book that acknowledges that it deals in substantial measure with the effects of immigration policy, there are no specific recommendations about immigration. Chavez gives us the standard canard about ours being a nation of immigrants (can you name a nation that isn't?), and a dose of pessimism on the chances of controlling the border. But there are no recommendations on the three fundamental questions of immigration policy, which we outline inside the front cover of every issue of this journal

1. How many of the millions who would like to come here shall we admit?

2. Who will be chosen to immigrate, and what should the criteria be for choosing?

3. How shall we enforce the rules we decide upon?

Should we throw open the borders and let all come as fast as they wish to, and with no regard to educational level, health or other factors? I'm sure, from talking with Linda, that she does not favor such a move. Should we admit people who are poorly educated and looking for manual labor, or those with skills that are marketable in an advanced economy? We need answers to these fundamental questions, rather than simply abandoning Hispanics and everyone else to the pressures of worldwide population growth and other problems.

The reason for the author's reluctance is not difficult to find the Manhattan Institute, which supported Chavez's work, belongs to The Wall Street Journal open borders crowd. Reaching any conclusion other than this, regardless of how moderate, would simply not be acceptable to her sponsor. Better to finesse any statement on causes and just deal with symptoms. That's the common approach in political circles - and Chavez is the quintessential politician.

Despite this one glaring weakness, this is a useful book for all interested in the question of national unity, and the necessary (though not solitary) requirement for that unity of maintaining some degree of commonality of culture and language.

About the author

John Tanton is Editor and Publisher of The Social Contract and founder of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His personal website is www.JohnTanton.org.