Hispanic Indicators Flashing Red!

By Edwin S. Rubenstein
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 25, Number 3 (Spring 2015)
Issue theme: "How many is too many? The challenge of Latino immigrants"

There are two conflicting scenarios for the future of Hispanics in this country. One sees them melding into mainstream America much like Italian, Jewish, and Irish immigrants during the Great Wave of immigration — 1890 to 1910. In this scenario Hispanics embrace middle-class “family-values,” learn English, eschew economic dependency, and engage in the political and social life of the society. This view is espoused by many in the liberal media.

Then there’s a darker prospect — call it Mexifornia after the book by Victor Davis Hansen. Hansen sees a de facto apartheid spreading from California to the rest of the country. Mexican immigrants, many of them illegals, will never speak English properly, never shed their criminal propensities, never participate in the civic life of the state. Unlike earlier immigrant cohorts, the Mexicans feel no great need to assimilate. There will always be thousands of newcomers to support them in a viable, albeit self-contained, expatriate culture.

As Lawrence Harrison makes clear in this magazine, the very notion of Hispanic assimilation remains a hope rather than a reality in the U.S. This is hardly surprising. Earlier waves had the advantage of a 40-year moratorium on mass immigration. They did not have to contend with multicultural barriers to assimilation. And they arrived here with no prospect of ever returning to their homelands. They came here to become Americans. There was no porous border keeping them in touch with those they left behind.

But the major obstacle to Hispanic assimilation devolves to its sheer numbers. Although Hispanics account for about 16 percent of the U.S. population, about 21 percent of all babies born in the U.S. are born to Hispanic mothers. The baby boom may have ended in the late fifties for non-Hispanic whites and blacks — but not for Hispanics. Their birth rates are 50 percent higher than other ethnic groups. In fact, Hispanics are the only ethnicity for which births per woman are above the “replacement rate” of 2.1 births per women.

In 2002 Hispanics passed Blacks to become the largest minority group in America. Population growth leads to political growth and cultural power. How long before traditional American values are displaced by those of the immigrants’ source culture?

Our Hispanic Indicators quantify the current state of this process.


The ability to speak English may be the best indicator of a person’s ability to assimilate and succeed in the U.S. Poor language skills are correlated with poverty, inadequate medical care, and alienation from mainstream American culture. English language frustration often leads to depression and violence.

The role of language was acknowledged early in our history. Benjamin Franklin expressed concern that German — at one time the language of about a third of the residents of Pennsylvania — was a corrosive political force. By the late nineteenth century the belief emerged that “ American English both reflected and constituted the democratic and rational nature of the country.1

In 1906, at the height of the Great Wave, Congress enacted an English language requirement for naturalization.2 In 1907 it appointed a joint committee, the Dillingham Commission, to study immigration’s impact on the country. Of the many restrictions the Commission urged Congress to impose on new immigrants, only two became law: literacy (in any language) for all immigrants aged sixteen or older in 1917, and a quota of 350,000 immigrants per year in 1921.

During World War I several states passed laws prohibiting the teaching of German and the usage of any language other than English in public places. Illinois even targeted speakers of British English, declaring “American” to be the state’s official tongue in 1923. As immigration ground to a halt during the Depression, the notion that this hiatus would facilitate the linguistic assimilation of those already here gained credence. English monolingualism among third generation immigrants was widely expected.

The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s foiled this happy prospect. The notion that the use of English in the public sphere disadvantaged non-English speakers was codified in the language initiatives embodied in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Acts. In particular, the position of Spanish in American life became part of the civil rights agenda. New York State, for example, was obligated to provide election ballots in Spanish and English.

Despite the patriotic pushback (23 states have passed Official English laws since the 1960s) the incursion of non-English speakers has not been broken:


In 2011 some 60.6 million people, or slightly more than one of every five people in the U.S. aged five years and older, spoke a language other than English at home according to the American Community Survey. By comparison, in 1980 only 23.1 million persons, or one in nine residents, spoke a foreign tongue at home. Over this period (1980 to 2011) the number of non-English speakers increased by 162 percent, while the overall U.S. population rose by 39 percent.

By 2020 the number of non-English speakers is expected to increase to 66.3 million, or about 6 million more than today. The non-English-speaking share of the U.S. population will edge up to 21.3 percent in 2020, according to Census Bureau projections.3

Spanish is by far the largest foreign language group, accounting for 37.6 million, or 62 percent, of all non-English speakers in 2011. Chinese is a distant second, accounting for 2.9 million, or 4.8 percent, of all non-English speakers. Those two languages, along with Vietnamese, Russian, Persian, Armenian, Korean, and Tagalog, saw their usage more than double in these last 31 years.

Meanwhile, many European languages are fading away in the U.S. There is now less than half the number of Italian speakers as there was in 1980. German, Hungarian, French, Greek, Yiddish, and Polish also saw significant drops, according to the Census survey.

Persons who speak a foreign language at home pay a price: although they account for about 21 percent of the total population, they represent 30 percent of America’s poor, 38 percent of those with no health insurance, and 43 percent of people with less than a 12th grade education.4

The problem has nothing to do with national origin or foreign language usage per se. It simply reflects their relatively poor English language skills. Forty-one percent of persons who spoke a foreign language at home in 2011 spoke English less than “very well.” Among Spanish speakers, 44 percent spoke English less than “very well”; among those speaking languages other than Spanish, 39 percent spoke English less than “very well.”

Immigrants who do not speak or read English well earn 17 percent less than immigrants of similar backgrounds, educational experience, and education who are proficient in English. First generation immigrants living with immigrant parents who do not speak English at all, or speak it poorly, are also at an economic disadvantage. One economist projects the wage penalty for Spanish speakers, foreign, and native-born alike, can be anywhere from 4 percent to 40 percent.


As a nation we are importing poverty. That is the clearest consequence of the surge in Hispanic immigration that began in the early 1970s. No matter which side of the immigration reform debate you are on, you cannot ignore that fact. To discuss poverty without discussing immigration is to live in a state of delusion.

But political correctness often forbids a free and open discussion. The politically correct assumption is that population is static. If poverty hasn’t declined, then some barrier must be making it harder for people to escape poverty. If people lack health insurance, then insurance must be much less available. If income inequality has risen, then something must be widening the gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of us.

But the population is not static. Each year about 900,000 immigrants arrive in the country legally, while uncounted thousands cross the border illegally. The cumulative impact is enormous. During the 2000 to 2010 decade immigrants and their U.S.-born children accounted for 80 percent of total U.S. population growth.5 From 1970 to 2010 the share of U.S. population born abroad rose from 4.7 percent to 12.9 percent.

Most immigrants arrive poor. Even those in the country for decades are more likely to live in poverty than native-born Americans. This is especially true of Mexican immigrants, whose poverty rates are significantly higher than those of immigrants from other regions of the world, and about twice those of native-born Americans:


Mexico is by far the largest source of current immigration into the U.S. In the 2000 to 2010 period 4.1 million Mexicans came to the U.S.; the next largest source country, China, accounted for only 0.8 million arrivals over that period.

More than half of all immigrants are Hispanic — from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. They arrive in greater numbers than non-Hispanics, and they have larger families, mainly due to their higher fertility rates. The poverty rate for immigrants and their U.S.-born children is currently around 23 percent compared to 13.5 percent for natives and their young children.


It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the poverty population is increasingly Hispanic.

The Hispanic share of the U.S. poverty population tripled between 1973 and 2010.

It is not simply that many new immigrants are desperately poor and do not speak English. That’s often been true. It’s that the new arrivals come from different countries than earlier immigrant cohorts. In the 1950s two-thirds of a much smaller number of foreign arrivals came from Europe and Canada. Wages of European immigrants approached (or even exceeded) the levels of native-born Americans after 10 to 15 years.

Recent data published by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that this is still true for European and Canadian immigrants, and also applies to many Asian immigrants:


In 2012 median wages for immigrants from Europe, Canada, and other non-Hispanic regions were above those of American-born workers. But the picture for Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants was much different. Simply as a matter of arithmetic, all those low income immigrants drive up poverty rates in this country.


In the late 1990s researchers were confident that Hispanic welfare dependency had peaked. A strong job market coupled with the restrictions on immigrant eligibility contained in the 1996 welfare reform law were expected to narrow the recipiency gap between Hispanics and other ethnicities. Those expectations have not been realized. As with poverty, the data on welfare use show that Hispanic immigrants have fallen further behind non-Hispanic immigrant groups.

The Mexican experience is instructive. From 2000 to 2010 the welfare recipiency rate of Mexican immigrants rose from an already lofty 35.7 percent to a catastrophic 57.4 percent. That is a 61 percent rise in dependency. Over the same period dependency for all immigrants rose from 24.6 percent to 36.3 percent—a 48 percent rise in dependency.

The following table compares welfare dependency rates for immigrants and native-born by race and ethnic group:


The data indicate that even after the 1996 reforms, which curtailed eligibility for some immigrants, the fraction of immigrants (and their U.S.-born children) receiving means-tested welfare benefits remains higher than that of natives. This is especially true for Hispanic immigrants, who—at a 51.2 percent dependency rate— are more than twice as likely to receive welfare than native-born (22.8 percent dependency).

By contrast, Asian immigrants receive welfare at the same rate as native-born Americans, while White immigrants were actually less welfare prone than native-born Americans—although slightly more likely to be on welfare than native-born whites.

While Black immigrants receive welfare at rates above that of the average immigrant, they are the only immigrant group to have lower dependency than their native-born counterparts.

Data by country and the region from which immigrants come reveal an even greater disparity in dependency rates.

At 57.4 percent, Mexican immigrants have the dubious distinction of receiving welfare at a greater rate than immigrants from any other country. Similarly, immigrants from Central America (ex Mexico) and the Caribbean rank first and second among all regions of the world in dependency—50.0 percent and 42.2 percent, respectively.

At the other extreme are immigrants from the United Kingdom and Canada, whose welfare dependency rates are only 6.2 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively. European immigrants receive welfare at less than one-third the rate of Mexican immigrants, and less than half the rate of all immigrants residing in the U.S.

Immigrants from China, Korea, Japan, and India also exhibit welfare dependency rates that are well below the all immigrant average. This factoid supports Larry Harrison’s statement welcoming immigrants from those countries “ ….whose swift acculturation and hugely disproportionate contribution to our progress contrasts strikingly with that of Latino immigrants.

The lack of health insurance is another problem for immigrants and, potentially, for U.S. taxpayers. Overall 34.1 percent of foreign-born residents lack health insurance compared to 13.8 percent of natives.6 Once again Mexican immigrants are conspicuously high on the list: 54.0 percent lack health insurance. When you include their children it falls to 41.0 percent, reflecting the fact that Medicaid, the government health program for the poor, is made available to U.S.-born children of all immigrants, even those in the country illegally.

Some immigrants come here specifically for the welfare benefits, but they are a tiny minority. In general immigrants are more likely to hold jobs than natives; their labor force participation rates (the fraction working or looking for work) are significantly above that of natives. This includes those on welfare. In 2010, 33.0 percent of immigrant households on welfare had at least one person working, while only 18.2 percent of native households on welfare had at least one worker.7

The high rate of immigrant dependency is primarily due to their low levels of education and marketable skills. Unskilled Hispanic immigrants hold jobs that do not offer health insurance, while their low incomes render them eligible for means-tested benefits.

The government requires that public education be made available to all immigrant children, including those of illegal aliens. In addition most states make college subsidies available to foreign-born “Dreamers.” Yet the educational achievement of immigrant households suffers relative to that of native-born households.

This is especially true for Hispanic immigrants.


Education is the best predictor of a person’s income, welfare dependency (or lack of same), ability to speak English, avoid criminal behavior, and function as a productive member of society. As mentioned above, the relatively low educational status of immigrants explains most of their substandard showing in these areas.

The marked differences in educational achievement among immigrants from different regions of the world should therefore come as no surprise:


Immigrant adults are three-times more likely than natives to lack a high school degree—30.7 percent versus 10.2 percent in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. As usual, the Mexican contingent lags all other immigrant groups: a shocking 59 percent lack a High School degree, while only 23.5 percent are High School graduates.

Close behind the Mexican contingent are immigrants from the Central America (ex Mexico) (47.5 percent lacking the high school degree) and the Caribbean (25.6 percent without a high school degree).

As troubling as these statistics are, they don’t tell the whole story. More than half of Latino immigrants never enrolled in a U.S. school, yet they are counted as high school graduates if they completed school in their country of origin. Others came here during their high school years, dropped out without obtaining a degree, but later obtained a General Equivalency Degree (GED) —making them “graduates” also.

It’s easy to blame economic necessity for driving Hispanic immigrants out of school. But the facts suggest something else is at work. After all, Blacks are somewhat more likely to live in poverty than Hispanics, but are much more likely to graduate high school and attend college.

So why do Hispanics drop out? Problems learning English, exacerbated by their mandatory enrollment in bilingual education programs, have undoubtedly driven many Hispanic students out of school. School violence and gang activity may be contributing factors.

Dr. Lauro Cavazos, the former Secretary of Education and the first Hispanic Cabinet member, suggested a few years ago that Hispanic parents were to blame for their children’s dismal record. Instead of encouraging their kids to continue their education, many Hispanic parents pressure their children to become self-supporting and to contribute to the family income.

Although he was roundly criticized, the data support Cavazos: More than 70 percent of Hispanic immigrant dropouts are active members of the labor force, either working or looking for work. That’s not true for native dropouts, who are much more likely to be idle…and perhaps more likely to resume their education at a later date.

There has been progress, however. Among Mexican immigrants 16 to 19 years old surveyed in 2012, 13.3 percent had dropped out (neither finished high school nor attained a high school degree) compared to 42.3 percent in 2000.8 Despite this enormous improvement, the dropout rate for young Mexican immigrants is still more than three times that of young native-born Americans (4.2 percent), seven times that of comparable Asian immigrants (1.9 percent), and about five times that of European immigrants of similar age (2.7 percent.)

Similarly, while Mexican immigrants of college-age are far more likely to enroll in college now than in 2000, they lag far behind other immigrant groups, not to mention native-born Americans, in this area.

Only 18 percent of Mexican immigrants of college age were enrolled in college in 2012. While that represents a nearly a three-fold rise in their college enrollment rates since 2000, it leaves them far behind immigrants from most other regions of the world. It is noteworthy that college enrollment rates for immigrants from Asia, South America, the Middle-East, and “All Other” (a group that includes Europe and Canada) are significantly higher than those of all native-born Americans.


The link between college education and immigrant well-being is well documented.9 Immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree who have been in the country for 20 years have much higher incomes than the average native as well as much lower rates of poverty. Even immigrants who have attended, but not graduated, college are much closer to the native-born averages for income, poverty, and health insurance coverage than immigrants who have never attended college.

Educational achievement of young Mexican immigrants does not augur well for their catching up to other immigrant groups, not to mention native-born Americans.


Crime rates are at historic lows in the U.S., while the number of legal and illegal immigrants entering the country is near record highs. Cities experiencing rapid growth in their Hispanic immigrant population often see local crime rates decline. Some see these trends as evidence that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives.

Do immigrants make us safer?

This conclusion appeals to the pro-immigration lobby, but it is intellectually dishonest and does not reflect reality. The (alleged) negative relationship between immigrants and crime is based on data that do not distinguish foreign-born from U.S.-born offenders and ignores the role race, age, and immigration status plays in criminality.

Recent research, including studies by pro-immigrant organizations, indicates that while the national crime rate is falling, crime rates for Hispanics and recent immigrants are rising. The overwhelming evidence— based on national victimization surveys and incarceration statistics—finds that Hispanics are more violence prone than non-Hispanic whites. Equally obvious: non-Hispanic blacks commit crimes at far higher rates than either Hispanics or non-Hispanic whites.

So what is the  crime rate for Hispanic immigrants?In its simplest form, it is the number of Hispanic immigrants arrested for crime divided by the total Hispanic immigrant population. Ideally, we would compare this to corresponding rates for native-born whites, blacks, and Hispanics—to determine whether Hispanic immigration increases the overall crime rate.

It sounds simple. But there are big problems.

Most crimes are committed by individuals aged 15 to 44, with the 18 to 29 age range representing a sharp peak in criminal activity. The median age of U.S. Hispanics is around 27, near the peak of the top crime range. But the median for whites is over 40, putting nearly half beyond the range at which crime is likely. Failure to adjust crime rates for age difference can bias the picture.

In addition, male inmates outnumber females in U.S. prisons by a ratio of 14 to 1. Since immigrants are (somewhat) more likely to be male, there is a built-in gender bias in immigrant crime statistics.

Ascertaining a convict’s place of birth is fiendishly difficult. Not only are felons reluctant to reveal their country of origin and lack of citizenship, but many localities forbid their police and prison personnel from even asking such questions.

Ideally we would like to compare the crime rates for Hispanics, non-Hispanic blacks, and non-Hispanic whites. Unfortunately the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report database does not separate Hispanics from other racial groups. The FBI lumps most Hispanic perpetrators in with non-Hispanic whites. This has the effect of narrowing the gap between black and white crime rates (by inflating the white rate) while suppressing information on Hispanic criminality.

Inescapable conclusion: the FBI bureaucrats who prepare crime statistics are too politically correct to present the truth on Hispanic criminality.

Luckily, the Justice Department folks who track the inmate populations of federal and state prisons record the ethnicity (Hispanic/non-Hispanic) as well as race of the inmates. The data show a remarkable rise in Hispanic prison population.10

During the first decade of the twenty-first century (2000 to 2009):

• The number of males incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons rose by 18 percent

• The number of white non-Hispanic males in prison rose by 4.5 percent

• The black-non-Hispanic male prison population rose by 6.2 percent

• The number of Hispanic males in U.S. prisons and jails exploded by 51.9 percent

More startling still is the end-of-decade trend. From 2008 to 2009 the number of white male inmates declined by 15,000 (-2.6 percent); black male inmates declined by 5,000 (-0.6 percent); while the count of incarcerated Hispanic males rose by 15,000 (+3.5 percent.)

The extraordinary rise in the Hispanic prison population reflects more than the rise in Hispanic population. Incarceration rates—Hispanic prisoners as a share of the Hispanic population—have also risen over this period. More importantly, Hispanic incarceration rates are considerably above those of non-Hispanics:


In 2009 there were 1,822 Hispanic males in prison for every 100,000 Hispanic male residents, and only 1,326 non-Hispanic males incarcerated for every 100,000 non-Hispanic male residents. In other words, Hispanic males were 37 percent more likely to be incarcerated than non-Hispanic males.

The Obama Justice Department changed the criminality metric from the total prison population to the number of sentenced prisoners. By excluding inmates who have not yet been convicted of their (alleged) crimes, this obviously reduces incarceration rates for Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike. However, Hispanic incarceration rates remain significantly above those of non-Hispanics even under this new metric (see table of incarceration rates).

Note that non-Hispanic Blacks are by far the most criminal-prone group. Their incarceration rate is more than twice that of Hispanics. The low non-Hispanic incarceration rate reflects the fact that whites account for 84 percent of all non-Hispanics, while blacks are a mere 16 percent.


White non-Hispanics are just one-sixth as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic blacks.

How reliable are the official crime rates? Many people believe inner-city crime is underreported because victims fear retribution. We cannot eliminate that possibility, but for homicides the reporting is always close to 100 percent. Nowhere is the Hispanicization of U.S. crime more obvious than in homicides:


The total number of prisoners serving sentences for murder fell by about 4 percent from 2008 to 2012. The number of white non-Hispanics in that group fell by 15.7 percent, while the number of blacks fell by 8.2 percent. Hispanics bucked the favorable trend: 8,000 more Hispanics were doing time for murder in 2012 than in 2008—a whopping 25 percent increase.

As far as murder is concerned, the new boys on the cell block are overwhelmingly Hispanic. 


1. April Linton, Language Politics and Policy in the United States: Implications for the Immigration Debate,” University of California, San Diego, August 2006. http://www.worldcat.org/title/language-politics-and-policy-in-the-united-states-implications-for-the-immigration-debate/oclc/143352253&referer=brief_results

2. Linton, ibid.

3. Jennifer M. Ortman and Hyon B. Shin, , Language Projections: 2010 to 2020, U.S. Census Bureau, August 2011. Table 3. http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/language/data/acs/Shin_Ortman_FFC2011_paper.pdf

4. American Community Survey, Language Use in the United States: 2011, Table 3, August 2013.

5. Steven Camarota, Immigrants in the U.S.: A Profile of America’s Foreign-born Population, Center for Immigration Studies, Table 6. August 2012.

6. Camarota, ibid., Table 11.

7. Camarota, ibid., p. 32.

8. Pew Hispanic Center tabulations of 2000 Census and 2012 ACS.

9. Camarota, ibid., pp. 55 to 58.

10. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison Inmates at Mid-year 2009 — Statistical Tables, Table 16, June 2010.

About the author

Edwin S. Rubenstein, a regular contributor to The Social Contract, is president of ESR Research, economic consultants. As a journalist, Mr. Rubenstein was a contributing editor at Forbes and economics editor at National Review, where his “Right Data” column was featured for more than a decade. He is the author of  The Earned Income Tax Credit and Illegal Immigration: A Study in Fraud, Abuse, and Liberal Activism.

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