California voters adopted Proposition 187 last fall to prohibit illegal aliens from receiving social welfare benefits, but the backlash that prompted the initiative extends beyond California and the question of illegal immigration. There is a growing perception that today’s immigrants are different from previous generations of immigrants. Nearly a decade ago, former Governor Richard Lamm (D-CO) said: “I know that earlier large waves of immigrants didn’t ‘overturn’ America, but there are. . . . reasons to believe that today’s migration is different from earlier flows.” Certainly, one of the ways in which immigrants are different is that they no longer come from Europe but from Asia and Latin America. About 80 percent of all legal immigrants come from these two regions, while nearly half of the illegal aliens in the country are from Mexico. But is Lamm right? Will the new immigrants `overturn’ America if their numbers are not greatly restricted? In fact — although immigration restrictionists deny it, and even Hispanic advocacy groups seem reluctant to tout it — the evidence suggests that Hispanic immigrants are very much like their predecessors from Italy, Greece, Poland, and elsewhere. They may arrive poor, uneducated, and non-English-speaking, but they don’t necessarily stay that way.
About 60 percent of Californians voted for Proposition 187; according to recent opinion polls, that’s about the same proportion as Americans overall who believe that immigration is bad for the country. Not all immigrant groups elicit high levels of fear, however. Most Americans remain unconcerned that Asian immigrants create problems. On the other hand, according to at least one recent survey, Mexicans and Cubans arouse stronger disapproval than all other groups except Haitians and Iranians. Yet, according to official government statistics, Hispanic immigrants, on average, are among the most industrious, traditional, and family-oriented groups in the country.
Proposition 187 supporters claim that illegal aliens are flooding California in search of welfare, free health care, and education. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that Hispanic immigrants — legal or illegal — come to the United States looking for a handout. Even before Proposition 187 passed, illegal aliens were ineligible for welfare benefits, although any of their children born in the United States may receive assistance. Contrary to the image of Hispanic immigrants living off welfare, the vast majority of Hispanic immigrants work. Indeed, 86 percent of Mexican men over 16 years of age are in the labor force, compared with only 75 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
Nearly three-fourths of Mexican families are comprised of married- couples, compared with 82 percent of non-Hispanic whites, and 48 percent of blacks. While Hispanic immigrant families are more likely than white families to be poor, two-thirds of all such Hispanic families are headed by someone who works, while only half of poor white heads-of-the-household work. Nor do Hispanic immigrants usually stay poor. Although their average initial earnings in the United States are only about half those of non-Hispanic whites, they rapidly close the gap as they learn English and gain experience in the American labor market. Most importantly, their children will be more successful than they are.
Young, second-generation Mexican-Americans, for example, complete high school at rates comparable to those of whites, about 80 percent of those age 25-34 graduate compared with 90 percent of whites. Education pays off for the children of immigrants, too. On average, second- generation Mexican-Americans earn nearly identical wages to non-Hispanic whites with the same education. And for those who worry that Hispanics will assimilate less successfully than other groups, it may come as a surprise that a majority of third generation Hispanics speak only one language — English; and one-out-of-three will marry non-Hispanic whites.
These numbers surely belie the image that Hispanic immigrants and their progeny will endanger the American work ethic; but they don’t entirely allay fears that Hispanic immigrants are less eager to become Americans than either today’s Asian immigrants, or the Europeans of previous generations. Unfortunately, Hispanic organizations on their own have done little to teach English and civics to Hispanic newcomers, rather waiting for the government to provide funds and resources for that purpose. The result is low naturalization rates among Hispanic immigrants, especially Mexicans. Generations of ethnics have learned that the best way to quell the nativists’ backlash is to help their fellow immigrants become Americans; not even Proposition 187 can keep Hispanics from beginning that process right now.