WASHINGTONI have been called a Spanish conquistador in Peru, a sudaca (South American scum) in Spain, and a wog in Britainand I am profiled as a Hispanic in the U.S. (which actually means ancient Roman since Hispania was the Iberian province of Rome). The first time I went to London, I was asked if there were any cars in Peru. I explained that they prefer flying saucers to avoid rush-hour congestion.
I may be forgiven for drawing attention to the abyss that separates perception from reality in todays debate on immigration in the U.S. The fact that President Bush should feel compelled to send the National Guard to the border with Mexico in order to win support for his proposal to legalize millions of Hispanics is an indication of where perceptions stand.
Whenever there is a major disconnect between the law and reality, trying to force reality to fit the law only brings more misery. Forcing millions of real people to adjust to fictionas the bill approved by the House of Representatives that triggered the recent protests by immigrants intends to dois the stuff of totalitarianism.
No one seriously thinks that 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants could be deported, or that everyone who has hired or assisted an immigrant should be considered a felon. It would have the effect of a hundred Katrinas on the U.S. economy and Mexicos social fabric. Can you picture those images on CNN? Can you imagine the Roman Catholic Church, the single largest Christian denomination in the U.S. and the prime source of assistance to immigrants, listed overnight as a source of organized crime?
Among the objections that form the rationale for anti-immigration legislation, two stand out: Immigrants threaten American jobs and erode American culture. Both are based on unwarranted fear.
In a productive economy, more workers mean more growthand even more jobs. Non-Hispanic whites are a minority in the two largest states, California and Texas, while Hispanics comprise more than 35 percent of the population in both. Unemployment rates in California and Texas mirror the national average. According to a study by United Van Lines, the largest moving company in the nation, since 1989 more people have moved from other states into Texas than have moved out, which rules out a stampede of non-Hispanic whites as the reason for Texas low unemployment rate.
Much of the Hispanic contribution has little connection to low-skilled jobs. According to Geoscape International, a third of Hispanic households earn over $50,000 a year. The Pew Hispanic Center puts the net worth of Hispanic households at more than $700 billion. HispanTelligence, a research division of Hispanic Business magazine, says the rate of growth of the purchasing power of Hispanics in the last 10 years is three times the national average. In 2010, Hispanics will own 3.2 million businesses. Clearly, these immigrants are expanding the national pie.
What about culture? I asked some colleagues of Samuel Huntingtonthe Harvard University guru who thinks Hispanics are eroding American valuestheir opinion. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-founder of the Harvard Immigration Project, says, Huntingtons views are not empirically based. Hispanics are learning English faster than did Italian and Polish immigrants a century ago, and 30 percent of adults from various first-generation Hispanic immigrant groups are marrying non-Latinos.
Univision Communications, the Spanish-language TV giant, is up for sale because the prospects for continued expansion are not greatthe second generation is tuning to English programs (many watch comedies such as The George Lopez Show and listen to Hurban radio). Sixty percent of Latinos are now American-born. According to Geoscape International, 83 percent of American Hispanics speak English.
As for family values, consider the fact that the average immigrant household has 3.8 people, over and above the national average of 2.3 per household for non-Hispanic whites.
If they are creating wealth, learning English, engaging in interethnic marriage, and practicing family values, how are they threateningly different from other humans?
The hostility toward immigration is fueled by post-9/11 national security considerations and economic insecurity arising from globalization. But that is all psychological. There is nothing to fear.
A law that aims in some reasonable way to legalize most undocumented Hispanics and lets U.S. companies hire more people from overseas if they need them will release resources currently tied up in the fight against illegal immigration so they can be directed at real security dangers. Given the risk of a xenophobic backlash, it may be wise to do this gradually. But the goal should be to adapt the law to reality. The argument that people who have broken the law should not be rewarded presupposes that a law that has been overwhelmed by reality can be enforced without massive side effects that would defeat the whole purpose.
You will not see 100 million people crossing the border. Ultimately, only those who can be absorbed by a willing U.S market will come.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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