Immigrant education has become a flashpoint for discussion across the country. Lost among the impassioned rhetoric, however, is accurate information on the number of immigrants and their impact on the United States. I hope to cast some light on the debate by providing facts and numbers on immigration--and what it means for the United States to become a ‘minority majority.’
We are currently in the middle of the second large immigration wave of this century. One major difference, though, is the countries of origin in the first wave, from 1901-10, (Germany, Italy, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R., Canada, and Sweden, in order by citizens arriving in the United States) and the current wave (Mexico, Philippines, Korea, China/Taiwan, India, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Canada, Vietnam, the U.K., and Iran).
Although we are known as a nation of nations, our past has been a nation of Europeans, as evidenced by the countries of origin in the first immigrant wave.
We are becoming a true nation of the world; virtually every country on earth has some residents in the United States. Our amazing success rate in absorbing huge numbers of immigrants has partly been because of a common European tradition. The question today is whether we can successfully absorb large numbers of non-European immigrants. (Europeans make up about 10 percent of today’s immigrants; they made up 85 percent of the first wave).
Initial answers to this vital question of adaPTAtion are optimistic. If one looks at immigrants arriving from 1980 to 1990 from Japan, Korea, Cuba, Mexico, Eastern Europe, Canada, China/Taiwan, and the Philippines, one finds that only a quarter owned homes in 1993. However, give these same groups more than 10 years in the United States, and you find that 59 percent of immigrants own homes, which is the average for all U.S. citizens. In addition, large numbers of Asian and Hispanic immigrants are now living in suburbs, another indicator of middle-class status. The immigrants in the past 10 years seem to be adapting to and succeeding in American society, thereby helping our economy rather than hurting it.
Immigration is currently a disproportionately large contributor to population increases in the United States. White birthrates have fallen below the replacement level. You need 2.1 births per female to maintain population--2.0 to replace Mom and Dad and 0.1 to cover infant mortality. The current white birthrate of 1.9 children over the life of a female is below replacement level. This explains the decline in the number of white school-age youths by four million from 1980 to 1990. So while the number of white students keeps dropping, foreign-born students are arriving to take their places.
By 2025, youths in the United States will be about half white and half ‘minority.’ By 2050, no ethnic group of any age in the United States will number a majority. While most of us will not be around, our grandchildren will still be going strong. The major reasons for this ‘minority majority’ are immigration and slightly higher fertility rates among nonwhites.
Additionally, by 2010, there will be as many Hispanics as blacks in the United States, a result primarily of Hispanic immigration. (It may be time for regular meetings of black and Hispanic leaders.) As difficult as it is for many whites to conceive of being a minority in ‘their own’ country, it will happen. Indeed, whites now make up only 18 percent of the world’s 5.5 billion people; that percentage will drop to about 9 percent by 2010.
Today’s immigrants do not distribute themselves equally by state, causing financial and social ramifications for those states with disproportionately high numbers of immigrants. Of the 1.5 billion immigrants arriving in 1990, 80 percent settled in just six states--California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida, and New Jersey--with California absorbing a whopping 44 percent of the newcomers. They are concentrated even further within a small number of metropolitan areas in these states and the District of Columbia.
One of the many consequences of this large immigrant population is the large number of people who do not speak English at home: 31.8 million in 1990. In California, 8.6 million people don’t speak English at home, or 31.5 percent of the state’s population; in Illinois, it’s 14 percent. While 17 million (well over half) speak Spanish at home, the remaining 14 million speak a bewildering variety of languages, making the challenge of bilingual education much more difficult. (I have visited classes of 28 students in which one student spoke English and the rest spoke a total of 12 other languages.)
While this may seem like a brand new challenge for America, the same situation applied at the turn of the century, in the European immigrants’ heyday, with children in the same classroom speaking Polish, Italian, French, German, Catalan, and Hungarian. Some of those children entered the country illegally as well, although information is scarce on how many.
In California, census data and data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service show that for every immigrant who arrived legally and became an American citizen, there was one immigrant who arrived illegally and also became an American citizen. Educating the children of illegals is unquestionably expensive, but one must also consider the cost of not educating them, given that deportation mechanisms are unlikely to send many illegal children back to their country of origin.
Public schools are now a little over 30 percent minority and will reach 38 percent minority by 2000. The teaching force--about 12 percent minority in 1990, according to the National Education Association--will drop to 3 percent by 2000, just as the student body reaches 38 percent minority. Efforts to increase the number of minority teachers have seen little success.
California is anticipating a 41 percent increase in high school graduates by 2000, 53 percent of whom will be nonwhite. To keep up, California should be building one new community college per week. Instead, enrollments are now capped in all sectors of California higher education. As these minority students prepare for college, potentially to study teacher education, the door will be shut in their faces.
One major reason that more than half of the world’s immigrants come to the United States is that the American dream works. Twenty percent of members of the U.S. Senate have immigrant grandparents. (I know of no other nation that can make this statement about its leading legislative body.)
Go directly to “We Need Immigration Reform in Washington,” Pete Wilson.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1995 edition of Education Week as ‘A True Nation of the World’