Ideas Fest speaker: U.S. needs immigrants
Can the United States still afford to be a nation of immigrants? Historian David M. Kennedy, at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, answered his own question with another: “Can we afford not to be?”Kennedy basically endorsed the kind of immigration legislation President George W. Bush and the U.S. Senate favor. It would generally establish guest-worker programs and provide ways for illegal immigrants to become legal.He criticized more restrictive legislation the U.S. House of Representatives favors, legislation he called “pretty reprehensible” for its harsh penalties and recommendation that a wall be built along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep immigrants from crossing illegally.
Kennedy was a speaker at one of the tutorial sessions at this week’s Ideas Festival, which runs through Sunday at the Aspen Institute campus on the northwest side of town.Kennedy also said the U.S., with its low fertility rate, basically is dependent on immigration for population growth.He said Japan is in a similar situation but with a zero-immigration national policy. Experts fear the Japanese population will fall to about half its current level by the end of the 21st century, he said. And that population, Kennedy predicted, will be far older on average than the current population, which will carry with it a host of demographic problems.A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former secretary of the treasury under President Nixon, Kennedy spoke Tuesday morning to about 100 attendees.”We would not be a nation without immigrants,” he said.
While there are roughly 34 million foreign-born individuals in the U.S. today, or about 11 percent of the nation’s population, he said, the percentages were higher in previous waves of immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s.But those earlier waves, he said, immediately dispersed throughout the country. And, he said, because earlier immigrants spoke so many different languages and dialects, and therefore could not speak easily to one another, they never formed political, linguistic and cultural blocs.But Latin American immigrants, who generally speak Spanish and have similar cultural roots, are forming just those kinds of blocs in the southwestern U.S. He said that as of 2005 the populations of several states reflected significant percentages of Hispanic immigrants, including New Mexico (38 percent), California (32 percent), Texas (25 percent), Arizona (19 percent) and Colorado (13 percent).”Those numbers tell us something pretty important,” he said, maintaining that where it was impossible for earlier immigrant populations to hang on to their culture and their language for more than a couple of generations, Hispanic immigrants have a greater chance of doing so. He said one political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, predicted that the Southwest may become “a kind of Chicano Quebec,” referring to the Canadian province where the language and culture are French, and even the politics are different from the rest of Canada.
Kennedy rejected Huntington’s prediction but added, “We have no historical experience that resembles this.”In Kennedy’s view, there are signs that Hispanic immigrants are more interested in assimilating than in maintaining a cultural divide from mainstream U.S. culture.Among successive generations of Hispanic immigrants, he said, increasing percentages finish high school and go for college degrees, which he feels could be a sign that Hispanics favor English language acquisition and assimilation.Although some fear the growing politicization of the immigrant Hispanic culture, Kennedy said it is in the nation’s interest to encourage Latin Americans to become politically active, rather than to withdraw into cultural isolation along the lines of Quebec.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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