Friday, May 19, 2006

Q & A: Why the Hysteria over Immigration?

The increasingly shrill discussion about immigration is nothing new. Every decade or so, the public and the politicians engage in a heated debate over immigration and what to do about it. This time around, however, the debate has been joined to an unprecedented degree by immigrants themselves. This is the first flexing of the Hispanic muscle that will increasingly define the United States.

Just in time to inform the immigration debate, the Census Bureau has released mid-decade population estimates, showing the contribution of immigrants to our population growth. Immigration accounted for 42 percent of the increase in the U.S. population between 2000 and 2005 (the other 58 percent was due to natural increase—or births minus deaths). Hispanics are the 51 percent majority of those immigrants. The engine of Hispanic growth is not just immigration, but natural increase as well. All told, Hispanics account for half of the entire increase in the U.S. population since 2000.

As of July 1, 2005, the nation's 43 million Hispanics accounted for 14 percent of the population—not a particularly large figure, but in combination with blacks, Asians, and other minorities the share climbs to a more impressive and potentially powerful 33 percent. This is an important number. When I was in graduate school, I read an essay (by a demographer whose name I no longer recall—if any readers know who this was, please remind me) theorizing that when a group reaches the one-third level in a society, it becomes a political force. At the one-third level, it needs only a relatively small slice of the rest of the population to create its own majority, allowing it to win elections.

Of course the nation's minorities are a long way from adding up to one-third of voters, since many are not citizens and cannot vote. But they can march in the streets, stir up the opposition, and shape public policy.

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