March 17, 2004

Mexican immigration - not new, not unique, not unprecedented

This is part two of my fisking of Samuel Huntington's recent Foreign Policy article. Part 1 is here.

This still isn't complete. Hell, it isn't really edited - it's barely been spellchecked. I really need to write these things in advance and then edit them down, instead of putting it all on the page and then just posting it. This fisking is going to become a three-parter from the look of it. The good bit is next, because there I talk about America's long history of multilingualism and multiculturalism, and offer what I think is a novel theory to explain some recent phenomena in American identity politics.

There will probably be some fixes later.

Anyway, my sources for this section are primarily the 2002 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, James Crawford's website, and this document that I found via the American Embassy in Berlin's website.

Time is not my friend lately. The next bit ought to go up by the weekend, but I'm just doing a crappy job of sticking to my self-imposed deadlines.

Huntington's article in this month's Foreign Affairs, reveals a truly anachronistic streak - the trace of a vision of American history constructed in the service of an ideology thought to be all but dead among the educated classes. We've all been exposed to this skewed perspective at one time or another. In some schools, it's explicitly a part of the curriculum, but for the most part, it's an accepted element of the American narrative, something absorbed quite unconsciously from political speeches, news programmes and Fourth of July celebrations.

This vision begins with the statement that America is a land of immigration. This is not untrue, as far as it goes, but from there it turns into entirely different territory. It is a bit like the person who tells you that they aren't racist, but...

America is a land of immigration, or so goes the tale, a land of the free and the home of the brave. A shining light unto the world. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. From the beginning, America was an open country. It is a nation built by refugees from the perpetual conflicts that rage across less free lands, who came in search of peace, tolerance and freedom. Those who landed on its shores quickly abandoned the customs and prejudices of their old countries, adopting the ways of their free and tolerant neighbours. They worked hard to raise themselves up from the poverty they carried with them and, because America rewards hard work, quickly became prosperous. Now, America is a nation where their very roots have been lost, where religious and ethnic tolerance has reached heights unequalled in the world, where there is no entrenched class or hereditary privilege. Where anyone who wants to be truly American is held to be equal in the esteem of their fellow Americans.

The modern raconteur of this tale might make some mention of slavery and racial intolerance and how deeply regrettable it was, but they will assure you that that America is working to overcome those barriers. They might also recognise that there were - in the far past - a few incidents of ethnic conflict and that there have always been a few enclaves of the ignorant and bigoted, but not enough to really undermine the truth of their tale.

But - and this is almost always the next part - but now things are different. Now, there are people who come to America who don't want to be Americans.

It might be because their native cultures are too different, or it might be because America has grown soft, coddles immigrants, and tells them that it's okay if they don't find jobs, or learn English, or if they keep the values they came with. Or maybe it's because we let so many more of them into the country than in the old days, or maybe because the frontier is closed, so we can't just send them out west to build new farms. America is a post-industrial society now, and we have to compete with those immigrants for jobs.

Where it goes from there depends entirely on the political dispositions of the speaker. It might lead to the conclusion that America shouldn't let so many immigrants in, or that it should just let immigrants from certain places in, or that it ought to impose tough prerequisites on immigrants. Or, it might become a diatribe against welfare, liberals, identity politics, or some other scapegoat. And - and this more frequently true in intellectual circles on the right and the left alike than you would think - people might voice the quiet fear that those immigrants are really better educated, harder working and possibly inherently superior to us.

What I want people to understand is that the entire story - from its uplifting, life-affirming roots to its pessimistic, isolationist end - is complete poppycock.

The first part has some elements that were true for some parts of American history, for some people, in some places. But there is no part that was true of all or even most American immigrants, and there was no group of immigrants for which it was all true at any time. This distilled version of the American immigrant narrative bears no particular relationship to the story of any coherent part of American immigration. Thus, it should hardly be a surprise when the conclusions are equally doubtful.

But Samuel Huntington does not seem to know that.

Contemporary Mexican and, more broadly, Latin American immigration is without precedent in U.S. history. The experience and lessons of past immigration have little relevance to understanding its dynamics and consequences. Mexican immigration differs from past immigration and most other contemporary immigration due to a combination of six factors: contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence, and historical presence.

So, Huntington puts forward six areas in which he believes the current wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants - and Mexicans in particular - is unprecedented. This is where the big rebuttal starts. I will take Huntington's points out of order, for my own reasons.


[...] Mexican immigration increased steadily after 1965. About 640,000 Mexicans legally migrated to the United States in the 1970s; 1,656,000 in the 1980s; and 2,249,000 in the 1990s. In those three decades, Mexicans accounted for 14 percent, 23 percent, and 25 percent of total legal immigration. These percentages do not equal the rates of immigrants who came from Ireland between 1820 and 1860, or from Germany in the 1850s and 1860s. Yet they are high compared to the highly dispersed sources of immigrants before World War I, and compared to other contemporary immigrants. To them one must also add the huge numbers of Mexicans who each year enter the United States illegally. Since the 1960s, the numbers of foreign-born people in the United States have expanded immensely, with Asians and Latin Americans replacing Europeans and Canadians, and diversity of source dramatically giving way to the dominance of one source: Mexico.

So, Huntington admits that Mexican immigration is not equal in scale to previous waves of immigrants, but I can't quite figure out what he's trying to say after that.

The above chart shows that proportion of immigrants to the US coming from North American nations - which you would be accurate in assuming largely means Mexico. The large spike around 1990 is primarily due to the temporary amnesty given to illegal immigrants. The large spike during WWII primarily had to do with the disappearance of European immigrants during the actual fighting and their reappearance afterwards, as well as a few regularisations among Mexican guest workers. Some of the inter-American immigration around 1960 was linked to the Cuban revolution. But, on the whole, Mexican immigration as a proportion of immigrants has remained constant.

As for the total amount of immigration, consider the following:

The above chart is not of immigrants as a proportion of the population, it of of raw numbers of immigrants. As you can see, except for the spike in 1990 linked to the amnesty, data for the last 20 years is in line with the pre-WWI period. When you consider the difference in the US population between 2000 (~275 million) versus 1900 (~75 million), it is difficult to see what is so unprecedented about the scale of current immigration.

This puts in perspective Huntington's claim that the number of foreign-born people in the US has exploded since 1960. It has grown, but it is still well below pre-WWI levels.

Foreign born and native born persons as a percent of total US population

Year Total populationNative populationForeign-born
TotalBorn in the

United States
Born abroad
TotalIn outlying areasOf American parents

[Census data from the US Census Department]

The 2000 census numbers are considerably higher than the 1990 ones. 11.1% of the 2000 US population was foreign born. Still, as you can see, the proportion of the American population that is foreign born is still well below the levels that were considered normal between the Civil War and WWI.

This is one of the key problems I see in American debates over immigration. For those of us who reached puberty after 1965, moderate levels of immigration have been the norm all our lives, as they were for those who lived before the 1924 Immigration Act. It is Huntington's generation which believes - even when shown statistics to the contrary, that the immigration patterns that prevailed from 1924 to 1965 are the norm. But this is completely false. During that period, America admitted very few immigrants, and used a quota scheme to ensure ethnic diversity among applicants.

Huntington has admitted as much, and claims that Mexican immigration, when compared to other immigration from other origins at other times, is unprecedented. But that is hardly true either.

German Immigration since 1820
Decade Total Immigration German % of Total
1820-29 128,502 5,753 4.5
1830-39 538,381 124,726 23.2
1840-49 1,427,337 385,434 27.0
1850-59 2,814,554 976,072 34.7
1860-69 2,081,261 723,734 34.8
1870-79 2,742,137 751,769 27.4
1880-89 5,248,568 1,445,181 27.5
1890-99 3,694,294 579,072 15.7
1900-09 8,202,388 328,722 4.0
1910-19 6,347,380 174,227 2.7
1920-29 4,295,510 386,634 9.0
1930-39 699,375 119,107 17.0
1940-49 856,608 117,506 14.0
1950-59 2,499,268 576,905 23.1
1960-69 3,213,749 209,616 6.5
1971-80 4,493,000 66,000 1.5
1981-88 4,711,000 55,800 1.2
Totals 49,753,412 7,028,258 14.1

[Source: U. S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Washington, D. C., 1975, 15; U. S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1990, Washington, D. C., 10]

[[But I lifted it from here.]]

Now, take a look at those figures for German immigration in the 1860's. Germans represented over a third of all immigrants to the US. Furthermore, compare the number of German immigrants in 1860's with the number of Mexican immigrants in the last decade of the 20th century: just under a million German immigrants into a country with just under 32 million people, versus 2.2 million legal, permanent Mexican immigrants in a population of 275 million. German immigrants that decade came to a little more than 3% of the population, while Mexican legal immigration in the 90's came to something less than 1%. The US would have to have see some 5 million Mexicans move to the US illegally and stay there in order just to equal German immigration in the period around the Civil War.

In the 1990s, Mexicans composed more than half of the new Latin American immigrants to the United States and, by 2000, Hispanics totalled about one half of all migrants entering the continental United States. Hispanics composed 12 percent of the total U.S. population in 2000. This group increased by almost 10 percent from 2000 to 2002 and has now become larger than blacks. It is estimated Hispanics may constitute up to 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2050.

I note that roughly one American in five claims German ethnicity these days and wonder if anyone made the same sort of frightening projections in the 1870's. Probably not - I suspect people had better things to do with their time - and I haven't been able to find any.

These changes are driven not just by immigration but also by fertility. In 2002, fertility rates in the United States [... blah blah, blah blah - I covered the whole "breeds like bunnies" thing last Wednesday.]

In the mid-19th century, English speakers from the British Isles dominated immigration into the United States. The pre-World War I immigration was highly diversified linguistically, including many speakers of Italian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, English, German, Swedish, and other languages. But now, for the first time in U.S. history, half of those entering the United States speak a single non-English language.

Let me link to a different graph of immigrants by area of origin, covering the 19th century:

True, in the decade preceding 1850, Irish and British immigrants came to about 60% of all US immigrants, but after 1870, this figure was under half and kept falling. (Although I don't see how exactly Irish immigrants fit into Huntington's Anglo-Protestant values? Hell, the British and Irish immigrants weren't even all anglophone - quite a few reached America's shores with poor English and decent Irish, Scots Gaelic or Welsh.) But really, this is another case where it depends on what you mean by "mid-" and "dominated".

As for the claim that immigration between 1900 and WWI was more diverse than today, let me dredge up a few statistics. 2,249,421 Mexican immigrants came legally to the US in the 1990s out of a total immigration of 9,095,417 people, according to the INS (or whatever it's called now). This comes to 24.7% of all immigration to the US. In the decade ending in 1910, 2,045,877 Italians came to the US out of a total immigration of 8,795,386 people, or 23.2%. This is just not that different.

And as for the final claim - that for the first time half of all immigrants speak a single language - it's true only if "half" means "just under half", if "for the first time" means "continuously since 1950" and if "a single language" means "French, Kreyol, Portuguese, English and Spanish." You see, Huntington is looking at US immigration service data, and they don't collect statistics by language, they collect them by country of origin. They have a category called "America" - which means all parts of the Western Hemisphere that don't have to pay attention to George W. Bush. In the last decade of the 20th century, 4,486,806 people immigrated to the US from countries in that category. The report that I have doesn't break this down for each country, just for the major contributors to immigration, but by my calculation, It looks like roughly 3.9 million immigrants came from Spanish speaking countries in Latin America. That number may include a significant number of people who don't speak Spanish. Many Mexican, Belizean and Paraguayan Mennonites are migrating to the US. But, let's take this number as representative. It means some 42% of all legal immigrants to the US in the 1990s were Spanish-speaking. This is lower than in the 1980s when the figure was 49.2%. Latin American immigration to the US has hovered between 40-50% of all immigrants since the Cuban revolution. So this is hardly new.

So, given a reasonably charitable reading, Huntington is basically right. The comparable figures for German-speakers in the late 19th century are harder to unpack than for Spanish. Even less data was collected in those days, and although we know how many immigrants came from Germany, statistics for German-speakers simply don't exist. However, in the period from 1830-1890 - when immigration from Germany alone was over a quarter of all immigrants - an enormous number of German-speaking immigrants were coming to the US from Russia, Poland and Austria-Hungary and even France before 1870. My German-speaking ancestors were Ostland Deutschen and fit that category. It is far from impossible that German-speaking immigration peaked above 40% of all immigrants sometime between 1865 and 1890.

So, while on some measures the scale of Mexican and Spanish-speaking immigration is higher than some previous immigrations, it is still not out of line with the peak of 19th century German immigration, and is far, far lower when considered as a percentage of the receiving population. In the 1880s, 1,679,008 people immigrated to the US from Germany and Austria alone, with I should think at least 200,000 Ostland Deutschen arriving as well. By my estimate, that comes to 3% of the American population in 1890. The whole of Latin American immigration from Spanish-speaking countries in the 1990s comes to 1.35% of the US population in 2000.


Americans' idea of immigration is often symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and, more recently perhaps, New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. In other words, immigrants arrive in the United States after crossing several thousand miles of ocean. U.S. attitudes toward immigrants and U.S. immigration policies are shaped by such images. These assumptions and policies, however, have little or no relevance for Mexican immigration. The United States is now confronted by a massive influx of people from a poor, contiguous country with more than one third the population of the United States. They come across a 2,000-mile border historically marked simply by a line in the ground and a shallow river.

This situation is unique for the United States and the world. No other First World country has such an extensive land frontier with a Third World country. The significance of the long Mexican-U.S. border is enhanced by the economic differences between the two countries. "The income gap between the United States and Mexico," Stanford University historian David Kennedy has pointed out, "is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world." Contiguity enables Mexican immigrants to remain in intimate contact with their families, friends, and home localities in Mexico as no other immigrants have been able to do.

Huntington's right in one respect. The US shares a longer contiguous border with Mexico than with any other nation besides Canada. However, these grandiose statements about the income gap are at best trivially true and draw attention away from what is really going on. First, the gap is in GDP per capita, not median income at PPP. By that count, the US is poorer, but then so is Mexico, and the statistics are also harder for me to find. So, let's verify Huntington's claim first. The CIA factbook claims that Mexican GDP per capita at PPP was $8,900 in 2002 and the US's is $36,300. So, Mexican GDP is 25% of American GDP.

I've managed to find a few places with comparable discrepancies - the Thailand-Myanmar border, the Greco-Macedonian border and the Greco-Albanian border - but I don't have a way to easily check every pair of countries that border each other, so there are almost certainly others. But, this ignores the existence of quite a few not quite so contiguous states with even larger income discrepancies and contiguous states with not quite such enormous differences in GDP. Morocco has 18% of Spain's GDP per capita, Algeria has 20% of France's and Albania has 17.5% of Italy's. Spain has a nominal land border with Morocco, but all those cases relatively easy movement across the Mediterranean has made them comparable to America's situation. Macedonia and Albania have only 26% and 23% of Greece's GDP per capita respectively, and Turkey and Bulgaria have just over the third of Greek GDP per capita. The difference across the Polish-German border is over 60% of German GDP per capita. Frankly, this problem is repeated all over Eastern Europe.

So, this is not so uniquely a US-Mexico issue. And - let's be honest - in all those nations immigration is a real issue and some of Huntington's concerns are finding voice in them.

But, what is really going on here is that Huntington is missing the point. The US has bordered Mexico since 1803 - there is nothing new about that. And yet, immigration from Mexico has always fluctuated. What has changed about patterns of immigration across the world is that long distance transportation is far cheaper than it used to be. America's proximity to Mexico is almost irrelevant to the quantity of immigration from Mexico.

It's not quite irrelevant. It is cheaper to go from the major Mexican population centres to the US than to, say, Canada or Europe. But the major population centres in Mexico are not clustered on the US border, they are far to the south. As a result, the real difference in cost is not quite as large as it might appear. There is a different factor that motivates immigration to the US in particular, but we will get to that later.

Regional Concentration

The U.S. Founding Fathers considered the dispersion of immigrants essential to their assimilation. That has been the pattern historically and continues to be the pattern for most contemporary non-Hispanic immigrants. Hispanics, however, have tended to concentrate regionally: Mexicans in Southern California, Cubans in Miami, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans (the last of whom are not technically immigrants) in New York. The more concentrated immigrants become, the slower and less complete is their assimilation.

In the 1990s, the proportions of Hispanics continued to grow in these regions of heaviest concentration. At the same time, Mexicans and other Hispanics were also establishing beachheads elsewhere. 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). Hispanics have also established concentrations in individual cities and towns throughout the United States. For example, in 2003, more than 40 percent of the population of Hartford, Connecticut, was Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican), outnumbering the city's 38 percent black population. "Hartford," the city's first Hispanic mayor proclaimed, "has become a Latin city, so to speak. It's a sign of things to come," with Spanish increasingly used as the language of commerce and government.

The biggest concentrations of Hispanics, however, are in the Southwest, particularly California. In 2000, nearly two thirds of Mexican immigrants lived in the West, and nearly half in California. [...] In Los Angeles, Hispanics--overwhelmingly Mexican--far outnumber other groups. In 2000, 64 percent of the Hispanics in Los Angeles were of Mexican origin, and 46.5 percent of Los Angeles residents were Hispanic, while 29.7 percent were non-Hispanic whites. By 2010, it is estimated that Hispanics will make up more than half of the Los Angeles population.

I'm not an expert on the Founding Fathers, but I have the suspicion that what Huntington means to say is when he says "the Founding Fathers believed that..." is "I could swear I read somewhere in Adams' papers, or Madison's, or maybe where Benjamin Franklin bitches about what inferior specimens the Germans are".

The rest is just bull. Late 19th century immigration was far more concentrated and was not dispersed in any way. The trend, instead, was just the opposite. Back then, US companies would actually travel to Europe - especially to Scandinavia - and sell immigration to the US the way package vacations are sold now. They did so by buying a big chunk of empty land out west and promising groups of people from the same area in Europe that they could all move there together so that they would be among their own and need never speak a different language or deal with strange customs.

People tended to go where they could be with their own kind - however they defined that. Germans - the big immigration wave of the late 19th century - settled the upper Midwest in a big belt stretching from western Pennsylvania to Montana. They dominated the populations of several states and a number of large cities. One third of all residents of Wisconsin in 1900 were either born in Germany or had at least one German parent. Milwaukee and St. Louis were basically German cities at the beginning of the 20th century. The "German band" encompassed virtually all of America's German immigrant and ethnically German population until WWI. I'm certain that people who are "ethnically German" must by now constitute majorities if not overwhelming majorities in several midwestern states.

This situation is little different than the position of Hispanics in California. You see, Huntington has made a mistake that betrays his prejudices. California has 11 million people who identify themselves as Hispanic, but only 3.5 million who are Mexican immigrants. The majority of Hispanics in all the areas he cites are US citizens by birth or by Puerto Rican origin.

And, Huntington is half right. German immigrants didn't integrate quickly. There are still today unintegrated German communities in America - Hutterites, Amish, and very conservative Mennonites - but before WWI, there were large areas that were German. This wasn't just a feature of German immigration. It was only in the 1920's that English really replaced Norwegian and Swedish in many parts of the the upper Midwest. Huntington has it exactly backwards - pre-WWI immigration waves were more concentrated and less likely to integrate quickly than present Latin American immigration.


Previous waves of immigrants eventually subsided, the proportions coming from individual countries fluctuated greatly, and, after 1924, immigration was reduced to a trickle. In contrast, the current wave shows no sign of ebbing and the conditions creating the large Mexican component of that wave are likely to endure, absent a major war or recession. In the long term, Mexican immigration could decline when the economic well-being of Mexico approximates that of the United States. As of 2002, however, U.S. gross domestic product per capita was about four times that of Mexico (in purchasing power parity terms). If that difference were cut in half, the economic incentives for migration might also drop substantially. To reach that ratio in any meaningful future, however, would require extremely rapid economic growth in Mexico, at a rate greatly exceeding that of the United States. Yet, even such dramatic economic development would not necessarily reduce the impulse to emigrate. During the 19th century, when Europe was rapidly industrializing and per capita incomes were rising, 50 million Europeans emigrated to the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

There is a fallacy in Huntington's logic. Yes, all past waves of immigration eventually subsided. If they hadn't subsided, they wouldn't be past, would they? The truth is that legal Mexican immigration, excluding the amnesty of 1990-91, has held stable around 20% of all immigration since the mid-70s. Even with a liberal estimate of long-term illegal immigrants, it still does not equal the levels of immigration that came from Germany or Ireland in the 19th century, and German immigration levels took 70 years to subside. Thus, I think it appropriate to take a longer term view.

As for the rest, it is not the difference in GDP per capita alone which motivates immigration from Mexico. Far more important is the perception of differences in opportunity. Compare, for example, African immigration to the US with Mexican immigration. People coming from Africa are the middle class by local standards, not the poorest of the poor. They are the only ones with the capital, the contacts, and the language skills to emigrate, and Africa has few opportunities for them.

From Mexico and Central America, a much larger part of immigration - and practically all illegal immigration - is coming from the very lowest strata of society. The reason is not because middle class people in Latin America are as wealthy as middle class Americans, it is because people emigrate when they feel they have nothing to lose by doing so. Someone who is middle class is established. They have work or own land and they have a stake in where they are. Abandoning all that is risky, and coming to America is not very rewarding if it means picking strawberries.

Huntington is onto something when he points out that Europe sent the most immigrants to America during years of rapid economic growth. What motivated immigration was the existence of a class of people with few opportunities, even in the increasingly wealthy Europe. The German and Scandinavian immigrants to the US were people who weren't getting richer, even when their country was getting richer. The farmer who can't buy land in a crowded nation, the tradesman made redundant by new machinery, or the worker living on subsistence wages - those were the people who came to America from Europe, and they are the people coming to the US from Mexico now.

Mexico need not attain American GDP in order for immigration to drop. It need merely improve to the point where most Mexicans feel secure and vested in Mexico. GDP per capita is secondary to this.

Historical Presence

No other immigrant group in U.S. history has asserted or could assert a historical claim to U.S. territory. Mexicans and Mexican Americans can and do make that claim. Almost all of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah was part of Mexico until Mexico lost them as a result of the Texan War of Independence in 1835-1836 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Mexico is the only country that the United States has invaded, occupied its capital--placing the Marines in the "halls of Montezuma"--and then annexed half its territory. Mexicans do not forget these events. Quite understandably, they feel that they have special rights in these territories. "Unlike other immigrants," Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry notes, "Mexicans arrive here from a neighboring nation that has suffered military defeat at the hands of the United States; and they settle predominantly in a region that was once part of their homeland.... Mexican Americans enjoy a sense of being on their own turf that is not shared by other immigrants."

Now, note that Huntington is sort of admitting that Mexicans have a good historical claim to US territory. If historical claims are important to your theory of nationalism and social justice, I suppose this is very threatening, although it is not quite unique. French Canadian immigration to New England in the 1910s and 1920s was as large in proportion to the population and in concentration to Mexican immigration today, and their historical claim was just as good. And, they too tended to concentrate and didn't integrate terribly quickly. There are still francophone communities in New England, and New Hampshire counts a third of its population as ethnically French-Canadian today.

Actually, there was a movement after the Civil War to give German-Americans their own state. This movement was not built on a historical claim but instead co-opted American rhetoric about democracy. I think that's a much better claim than mere historical presence.

But I'm not one of those people who see much value in historical claims as such. They tend to lead to genuinely inane arguments of the sort that dominate Middle-Eastern and Balkan politics today. I suspect that Huntington's citation of this threat points to his own recognition that historical claims of that type are valid. This recognition is at the core of a lot of now fairly conservative nationalism in many parts of the world.

But, the point here is that if you do credit these claims - or even if you don't - Mexicans do have special rights in the Southwest. The surrender of Mexican sovereignty over all US territories west of the Rio Grande was conditional on the terms of the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hildago. The chief US negotiator of the treaty, Nicholas Trist, said in a letter to the Secretary of State that the Mexican delegation had "a perfect devotion to their distinct nationality, and a most vehement aversion to its becoming merged in or blended with ours." They insisted on "the right of Mexicans residing [in the now American west] to continue there, retaining the character of Mexican citizens."

The treaty was consistently interpreted as mandating bilingualism at all levels of government and education. The 1849 constitution of California is explicit about the bilingual character of the state government, and this was only removed from the 1879 constitution by white settlers who were unabashedly nativist and racist. According to one delegate to the state's constitutional convention, "This State should be a State for white men. . . . We want no other race here." New Mexico was actually denied statehood until the anglophone population outnumbered the Spanish-speaking population, so that New Mexico's explicit state bilingualism could be stripped from it. Even today, New Mexico is an officially bilingual state because the state courts recognise Spanish bilingualism as a requirement of the treaty.


Illegal entry into the United States is overwhelmingly a post-1965 and Mexican phenomenon. For almost a century after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, no national laws restricted or prohibited immigration, and only a few states imposed modest limits. During the following 90 years, illegal immigration was minimal and easily controlled. The 1965 immigration law, the increased availability of transportation, and the intensified forces promoting Mexican emigration drastically changed this situation. Apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol rose from 1.6 million in the 1960s to 8.3 million in the 1970s, 11.9 million in the 1980s, and 14.7 million in the 1990s. Estimates of the Mexicans who successfully enter illegally each year range from 105,000 (according to a binational Mexican-American commission) to 350,000 during the 1990s (according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service).

This last point - Huntington's third point, my last - is the one place where he might be right in suggesting that Mexican immigration is unprecedented. Personally, I'm always suspicious of estimates of illegal immigration. They tend to be biased by the search criteria. How many illegals are repeat entrants is one of the questions that is hard to answer. If 300,000 illegals enter the US every year and 250,000 leave, then it not a very big factor in immigration, although it may be an important factor in the labour market. Also, illegals eventually either go home or have American children and regularise their status, so I'm not terribly inclined to view them as a very important addition to discussions based on legal immigration statistics.

However, I should point out that Mexican illegal immigration is a phenomena entirely constructed in the US. Before the restrictive changes to immigration policy in 1924, illegal immigration was not uncommon but almost never resulted in expulsions. Anyone who could show they had lived in the US for a number of years and had not gotten into trouble could simply have their status regularised. Besides, there were few immigration controls outside of port cities and police had better things to do. One could live one's entire life in America as an illegal without anyone noticing or caring.

What is unprecedented is that US policy has changed. Now, you cannot get a job unless your papers are in order. Nowadays, being Hispanic and poor in the Southwest means having to show proof of citizenship or immigration status whenever a cop pulls you over.

The upshot of all this is that Huntington's case for the unique threat of Mexican immigration does not rest on any sound claim based on the history of American immigration or global patterns of movement. There is little here that is really unprecedented or unique. Huntington's case therefore rests on a single claim: that Mexicans are not integrating, that Americans aren't making them integrate and that they are too different to tolerate as they are.

That claim is ultimately predicated on a whole theory of language, culture and social identity, which I intend to dismantle in the next part.


Posted 2004/03/17 13:05 (Wed) | TrackBack

There's no established blog-commenting convention for giving a standing ovation, is there? Anyway, that was great, Scott, a coherent, to-the-point demolishing of the article. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at March 17, 2004 13:53

Thanks, Aidan. I think it's even better now that I've fixed the obvious spelling and syntax errors. God, reading my own unedited text can be embarassing, but if I don't post it I never seem to fix it.

Posted by: Scott Martens at March 17, 2004 16:00

Ah, the wonderful world of editing.

Really good fisking. I needed a cigarette afterward. I'm eager for Round Three!

Posted by: Brad at March 17, 2004 18:34

"Yes, all past waves of immigration eventually subsided. If they hadn't subsided, they wouldn't be past, would they?"

No, if they hadn't subsided, they wouldn't have been waves.

Posted by: degustibus at March 18, 2004 7:57

Irish immigration might fit better into Huntington's Anglo-Protestant vision than you think. It's something few are aware of, and might seem counterintuitive, but the majority of Americans who self-identify as 'Irish'/Irish-American/of Irish descent (or however you want to describe it) are protestants.

One reason for this, you might think, is the first wave of Irish immigration to America, which began well before America achieved independence. The bulk of these people were Ulster protestants ('Scotch-Irish', as they are inaccurately called in America). But the descendants of these Irish people are much less likely to identify today as 'Irish-American' than the descendants of later Irish immigrants.

The second great wave of Irish immigration, which reached its peak during the famine years and their aftermath, consisted for the most part (but by no means exclusively) of catholics. Those who settled into the urban Irish communities in the big Eastern seaboard cities and Chicago usually remained catholics. Those who ventured farther afield, as Sandra Day O'Connor could tell you, very often didn't.

So perhaps Huntington should look on the bright side. Give it a hundred years, and there'll be plenty of dour repressed Mexican-American protestants to warm the cockles of his heart. (Actually, as I understand it protestantism is already making great inroads among America's Latino population in general; but many of these are evangelicals, and I suspect Huntington prefers something a bit more subdued.)

Not that this matters. Huntington's Anglo-Protestant society is all a load of old bollocks in any case. One might say that the canvas of America is 'Anglo-Protestant'; but the paint has been laid on pretty thick with the palette-knife by now, and in any number of contrasting hues.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton at March 18, 2004 11:18

Great post!

Posted by: Daniel at March 18, 2004 13:30

Scott, interesting piece. I had a go at
something not dissimilar myself late last year, in a
review of Buchanan's The Death of the West

Posted by: The Shamrockshire Eagle, editor and sole proprietor of at March 19, 2004 11:30


Posted by: Joerg Wenck at April 5, 2004 22:24

I remember reading the 'clash of civilizations' several weeks before 9-11, and thinking; this is going to happen. Huntington is somewhat like a prophet to me now. Now he warns us of special endangerment from the flow over our southern borders. Others say relax, trust the expert who tells us that there are no enemies, only racism , xenophobia and ungenerosity. What if the government's racial and immigration policies are also intended by some to help precipitate a race war , in which a national emergency allows for the overturning of the constitutional order, more war and tyranny of long duration. If such events were not far off, it would be wrong to relax and look with tolerance and indulgence on those with obvious hostility towards our laws, standards and even sovereignty.

Posted by: john s bolton at April 6, 2004 11:17

you guys and ladies too, I am the son of a first generation mexican immigrant(she is fluent in english and spanish) and does not have to say juay(a derogitory spanish word)in every sentence she speaks, as mostly all mexicans in El Paso Texas do. In El Paso all I get to see are wealthy mexican nationals with little regard for the laws of this country. True event guys, I work at Sams, while cleaning the aisles of cardboard within the space of 2 or 3 hours I found not one but two 15 dollar packages of uncooked steak opened and emptied of their contents. C'mon please!!! I agree w/Mr.Hungtingtons article completely.

Posted by: keith re at August 29, 2004 23:02

what would you say to the comment, "Mexican immigration poses a threat to our cultural, economic and political integrity and, ultimately, our national security." its nuts trying to find good sources for this because everybody is anti-mexican. thanks for your enlightenment on huntingtons article. that was really helpful.

Posted by: sara at November 29, 2004 22:32

I just wanted to say that your piece has helped me with my thesis about Operation Wetback and fluxes in Mexican immigration relating to war...THANK YOU!

Elizabeth Ault

Posted by: Elizabeth at December 8, 2005 19:11
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