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Melting Pot Still Bubbles

March 11, 2004

In his 1996 bestseller "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington raised eyebrows around the world by declaring that a global conflict of cultures, primarily Christianity versus Islam, would define the 21st century. Now, in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Huntington warns that "the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives." In this apocalyptic vision, the United States itself may well be headed for a crackup as Mexicans and other Latinos form their own political enclaves instead of embracing what Huntington calls Anglo-Protestant values.

But does the fact that the name Jose replaced Michael in 1998 as the most popular for male newborns in California and Texas really spell the end of the American way of life? Huntington's warning is provocative, sweeping -- and utterly unconvincing.

As Huntington sees it, the proximity of Mexico and regional concentration of Mexicans in the American Southwest imperil the United States. Certainly Mexicans dominate illegal and legal immigration; perhaps 5 million are in the U.S. illegally, and Mexicans make up one-fifth of legal immigrants currently here. But Huntington wrongly ascribes separatist tendencies to what he calls a Mexican reconquista of chunks of Southwest territory that the U.S. grabbed from Mexico in the 19th century.

Instead of congregating, Mexicans are on the move: The share of new immigrants from Mexico traveling to southeastern states like Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as Midwest states such as Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, has greatly increased over the last decade. The share of Mexican immigrants living outside Texas, California, Illinois and Arizona has increased from about 500,000 to at least 2.7 million.

The real problems associated with Latino immigration aren't the cultural ones spotlighted by Huntington. There are real social and hard-dollar costs to immigration, particularly in California. Immigrant children cost more to educate; that should be weighed in part against what their parents contribute. These and other trade-offs are complex and bear scrutiny, but they are not the stuff of simplistic conclusions.

The truth is that Huntington's complaints about Latinos have a familiar ring. Founding father Benjamin Franklin said that German immigrants were "the most stupid of their nation" and that "few of their children knew English." The Know-Nothing Party in the mid-1850s warned that a papal plot jeopardized America's Protestant culture and demanded that immigrants be prevented from voting until they had lived in the United States for 21 years.

As successive waves of immigration show, however, U.S. culture is constantly changing as it absorbs new influences. Stagnation, not change, is the enemy of the American dream.

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