America’s burgeoning minority population is largely the byproduct of a surge of immigrants in the last 30 years, without whom this country would be rapidly aging and economically stagnant — think of a Western version of Japan. A heartening subtext of that immigration explosion is that it has occurred, despite frictions over illegal immigrants and too few policies to grease the wheels of assimilation, with a minimum of social disruption.
Contrast that with Western Europe’s biggest countries, where the percentages of immigrants (and minorities) are lower but the social tensions surrounding them much more acute. To varying degrees and despite divergent policies in England, France and Germany, there are worrying signs that Europe’s second-generation immigrants are socially and economically less integrated than their parents, who came for work but were never made to feel welcome. Stranded in countries they regard with hostility, the second generation has drifted in many cases toward political and religious radicalism.
America, with a longer and richer immigrant tradition and a different immigrant pool, has been much more successful in absorbing its influx. True, progress across generations is uneven: Latinos tend to trail Asians, blacks and non-Hispanic whites. But like Irish, Italian, Polish and Jewish immigrants a century ago, the latest wave of immigrants wants to become fully American. And while full integration often takes more than one generation, the children of newcomers are generally doing much better than their parents.
The real danger is complacency. Education levels of today’s immigrants and their children may be no worse than their early-20th-century counterparts, but they still graduate from college in far smaller proportions than do non-Hispanic whites. That represents a crippling disadvantage in today’s post-industrial economy.
Elected officials have done too little to address that discrepancy. They also have been paralyzed by the presence of 11 million illegal immigrants, whose children, documented or not, are assimilating too slowly and risk becoming an intractable part of the long-term underclass. In the past, unauthorized immigrants were often eventually given a leg up and a path to legalizing themselves by amnesty or other means, affording their children a shot at the American Dream. Now, millions are stuck, and America is the loser.
Radical demographic shifts are occurring in Texas, Florida, Arizona and other big states as elderly non-Hispanic white populations, who control the political process through their votes, are being gradually supplanted by a wave of younger Latinos. America’s complexion is changing, literally. It will be up to politicians to manage that evolution without social upheaval and to ensure that younger Americans, even if they don’t resemble their elders, get the same opportunities.