Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration is Transforming America, Roberto Suro, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, 349 pp.
This book’s premise is all in the subtitle: Hispanic immigration is transforming the United States. But unlike the countless books and articles that would have us celebrate transformation, Strangers Among Us sounds the alarm. Hispanic immigration is causing big problems and they are getting worse:
[T]he outcome [of how we handle these new immigrants] will determine whether the nation’s cities work or whether they burn.
Latino immigration could become a powerful demographic engine of social fragmentation, discord, and even violence.
Because of the surging number of Hispanics, ‘the size of America’s underclass will quickly double and in the course of a generation it will double again.’
The choice [of making immigration a success] is still possible, but the opportunity is rapidly disappearing.
So, do we have here another Peter Brimelow-style argument for restriction? Well, no. Roberto Suro, a half Puerto Rican-half Ecuadorean reporter for the Washington Post says that the crisis is proof we are neglecting the millions of Hispanics now pouring into the United States. It is to spur us to ever-greater acts of liberalism that he describes the failures of Hispanic immigration and the dangers that loom ahead.
This is a risky game for a liberal to play. The very picture of Hispanic failure Mr. Suro paints in the name of better schools, more jobs, more effective assimilation, etc. is the very one a restrictionist would use to argue that Third World immigration should stop right now. This book, therefore, is built around a gaping logical flaw. It is a readable, honestly-drawn, sometimes agonized portrait of the major Hispanic immigrant groups in the United States, but not once does it consider the most obvious solution to the problem of Hispanic immigration: end it. It is like discovering that the house has a leaky roof, and then devising ingenious and complicated ways to channel the water around the furniture and away from the clothes closets. Why not just fix the roof?
Mr. Suro, like so many others, seems to think that Hispanic immigration is an unstoppable force of nature like an earthquake or hurricane. We can prepare for it and try to deal with its consequences but there is no hope of stopping it. Indeed, the last words of the book’s first chapter, in which Mr. Suro introduces the problem, are “they will keep coming.”
Portraits of People
Most of the book is a report of what Mr. Suro has found while roaming, notebook in hand, among his fellow Hispanics. But he has also done some research, and keeps dropping interesting little facts into the narrative: During one 15-year period, half of the entire population of the town of San Cristobal, Guatemala, moved to Houston. The fertility of Hispanics is three times that of other groups, and Hispanic mothers have even less education than blacks. The average California household headed by a native pays $1,178 per year in state and local taxes to pay for services for immigrants, legal and illegal. Three quarters of immigrants from Mexico never made it through high school.
Mr. Suro is a good reporter and his portraits are vivid. The only trouble is that what he shows is not what most people want for America.
What most disappoints Mr. Suro is the downward mobility of so many Hispanics. Other immigrants start out the with a substantial income gap compared to natives, which they narrow over time. Not Hispanics. Their gap widens.
The first generation often has a stolid, peasant work ethic and is grateful to trade the hard scrabble life south of the border for a minimum-wage job and a garage converted into an apartment. The children are different: “With no memory of the rancho [subsistence farm], they have no reason to be thankful for escaping it. They look at their parents and all they see is toil and poverty.”
Disaffected children go on to assimilate the worst of America — essentially black behavior. Many, says Mr. Suro, are “racing ahead of their parents in absorbing American ways but are turning into unemployable delinquents as a result.” He regretfully describes one young U.S. citizen this way: “He could have remained in Mexico and become a very different person, but now, like the rest of the night people [who hang around the barrio doing nothing], he walked a walk and talked a talk that had been largely plagiarized from the black ghetto.”
Central Americans share the same fate. Many of them “learned how to become gang bangers from their Mexican and Mexican-American neighbors who had been at it for a long time . . .” Mr. Suro concludes that “the chances for downward mobility are greatest for second-generation youths who live in close proximity to American minorities . . .”
And so it is that in many Hispanic communities, every succeeding generation is less likely to graduate from high school or get a job, and more likely to run drugs, go to jail, have illegitimate children or go on welfare. Not surprisingly, some parents and grandparents now regret coming to a country that has turned their sons into thugs and their daughters into whores. A few, says Mr. Suro, are even going home, where they will be poor but will have children they can be proud of.
The least successful Hispanic immigrants have been Puerto Ricans, many of whom have not even managed to rise much above the level of life back in the Third World. In New York, many live on vacant lots in thrown-together shacks just like the ones they left behind: “Men with no work sit and play dominoes and tend little gardens as if they were back on their island and the whole migration had simply taken them back to where they were fifty years ago.” New York’s Puerto Ricans are actually worse off than the city’s blacks. They are more likely to be on welfare, and only 50 percent have a high school diploma (as opposed to 66 percent for blacks.)
Mr. Suro marvels at how quickly Hispanics degenerated to the point that during the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the first verdict in the Rodney King beating case, more Hispanics than blacks were arrested for arson and looting. “L.A’s blacks had taken a journey of centuries — from Africa, through slavery, out of the rural South, and into urban poverty — to reach that kind of rage,” he writes. “The Latinos who took to the streets had accumulated enough bitterness to reach critical mass in less than a decade.” As a young man in South Central Los Angeles explained to him, “To most people here, this is still a foreign place that belongs to someone else.”
Indeed, Hispanic immigration cannot help but keep foreigners foreign. Most are a different race from the majority. They come in large numbers and create ghettos. They can easily go home and revive nationalist sentiments. The Dominicans of New York, says Mr. Suro, are just one more typical group. They never considered the United States their home, and the 330,000 that had piled into New York City by 1990 went through “the classic process of assimilation, but in a downward cycle.”
(A study that came out after this book was published puts the current Dominican population in New York at 500,000. From 1989 to 1996, the Dominican per capita income dropped 23 percent in inflation-adjusted terms to $6,094, and the poverty rate rose from 37 to 46 percent. The Dominican Republic is sending losers to America. The ones who come are half as likely to have a college education as the ones who stay. Within just two years there could well be 700,000 Dominicans in New York City.)
Mr. Suro is not even satisfied with the Cubans of Miami. He rightly describes them as the richest Hispanic enclave in the United States — a barrio with country clubs — but “it remains a place apart from the rest of the country.” And poverty alone does not explain why Hispanics are separate: “Rich Latinos remain ambivalent toward America just as much as poor ones. In fact, wealth may make it even easier to avoid full engagement with the new land . . .” Mr. Suro quotes one of the gilded young men who attend a snooty private school for upper-crust Miami Cubans: “Our parents had to hassle with Anglo society, be we don’t. This is our city.”
Mr. Suro notes that Hispanics have not closed ranks with blacks to fight for “equality,” and other redistributive schemes. He finds that Hispanics don’t like blacks, and complain that they are lazy and crime-prone. All this is disappointing to him but he concedes that the historic experience of Hispanics is different from that of blacks and thinks this may explain why there is no rainbow coalition: “The logic and the mechanism of civil rights law developed as a solution to the plight of African-Americans, and it was never particularly well suited to Latinos.”
Mr. Suro reluctantly acknowledges that race is the great divide. Even when they are forced to live close to blacks, most Hispanics try to ignore them. The only real exceptions are the young men — who fight them. They “call themselves raza and march forward as ethnic Mexicans to do battle against American blacks.” If anything, Hispanics seem even more likely than blacks to form gangs, and turf battles are small-scale race wars.
So, what is to be done about Hispanic immigration. Though Mr. Suro thinks white America has not done enough to assimilate new immigrants, he cannot deny that Hispanics are largely responsible for their persistent status as outsiders: “[T]his country’s Latinos must answer a basic question about who they want to be.” Mr. Suro very much wants them to be Americans and is pained that they remain so alien. He wants them to learn English, and he even wants them to oppose illegal immigration — to put respect for American law over ethnic solidarity.
Mr. Suro admits that he is asking Hispanics to “put the whole question of group identity in a new light.” They must think of themselves as Americans with a stake in an English-speaking country with Anglo-Saxon institutions. Then they will oppose illegal immigration and turn their backs on South-of-the-border kinfolk who keep sneaking into the country.
But is this possible? Mr. Suro concedes that “more than half of the entire Latino foreign-born population of the United States has had some direct experience of illegality.” He notes that many neighborhoods and even households are a mix of legals and illegals. How realistic is it to think Hispanics are going to repudiate their friends, co-workers, or even family just because they don’t happen to have papers?
Moreover, Mr. Suro completely ignores the reconquista element of Hispanic immigration, the zealots who want to “retake” the Southwest and drive out whites. The last thing these people will do is think of themselves as “Americans.”
Therefore, Mr. Suro’s “solution” to the problem of Hispanic immigration — more liberalism and an effort by Hispanics to renounce their ethnicity — is pure fantasy. Americans are tired of uplift programs that don’t work, and the past 40 years have shown how illusory is the idea of a race-unconscious America. One might take Mr. Suro more seriously if he added to these recommendations a call for a halt to further Hispanic immigration. But, no. He looks forward to more and more. Anyone who suggests that Hispanics are going to set aside race and foreign loyalties while yet more millions march into the country has either fooled himself or is trying to fool his readers.
This book, therefore, is an excellent example of the incoherence that characterizes any social question that touches on race. Mr. Suro could hardly be more compelling when he describes the failure and degeneracy that has often followed Hispanic immigration.
After detailing the dead-end lives of so many Puerto Rican immigrants, he returns to his central theme:
Like the Puerto Ricans, many of today’s Latino newcomers arrive with little education and not much in the way of technological job skills. The main difference is one of scale. The Puerto Rican migration was small enough so that the primary victims of the disaster were the Puerto Ricans themselves. Today’s Latino migration is so much larger and more widespread that the entire nation will suffer grievously if the Puerto Rican fate is repeated.
There is one sure way to avoid more suffering: Stop the immigration. This is so obvious that not even intellectuals and policy-makers can fail to see it. But until Americans can shake off the mental paralysis that falsifies every discussion of race and immigration, they will be unable to take the most basic steps necessary to save their country.
[Editor’s Note: This review is in A Race Against Time: Racial Heresies for the 21st Century, a collection of some of the finest essays and reviews published by American Renaissance. It is available for purchase here.]