Since the original British settlers arrived on its shores in the 1600s, America has been a nation of immigrants. Between 1840 and 1925, nearly a century of mass immigration changed an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious melting pot. From Irish families fleeing famine to Chinese workers seeking Gold Rush riches, America offered the hope of a better life.
It is the same promise of opportunity that explains the new wave of immigration which, from 1965, has come predominantly from Latin America and Asia. And it is throwing up the same questions, challenges and tensions that Americans grappled with in the later 1800s and early 1900s.
The numbers speak for themselves, over 56 million Americans, nearly 18% of the total population, already claim Hispanic heritage,1 and by 2045 it is projected to reach nearly 25%, or over 80 million people. In fact, driven by the huge rise in the Hispanic population, it is predicted that by 2045 America will no longer even be a majority White country.2
Understanding this seismic demographic shift is, therefore, crucial to grasping some of the current and future challenges facing the US. Here are six facts that help explain the potentially profound social and political change ahead.
- Most Hispanics are from Mexico
Fully 63% of Hispanic-Americans came from one country: Mexico. No other country comes even close to this total. Puerto Ricans, the second largest group of Hispanic-Americans, comprise less than 10% of the total, while the third-and-fourth-largest groups, El Salvadorans and Cubans, are a mere 4% each.3
- Most Hispanics are legal immigrants, but most foreign-born Hispanics are undocumented
While Trump’s focus on building a border wall with Mexico might suggest otherwise, around three quarters of Hispanic-Americans are living legally in America, either because they are native-born US citizens or are legal immigrants. Nevertheless, nearly 8.5 million Hispanics living in America, and around 5.5 million Mexicans, are in the US illegally,4 and two-thirds of foreign-born Hispanics are undocumented.5 This simple fact is one reason why immigration is such a potent issue in America – and why President Trump’s call for the wall resonated so widely.
- Hispanics are overwhelmingly in working-class jobs
Hispanics in America are overwhelmingly in the labour force and occupy traditionally working-class jobs. That’s not a surprise considering their relatively low educational attainment. Nearly half of American-born Hispanics, and nearly three-quarters of those born elsewhere, have no more than a high school diploma. In fact, nearly a third of foreign-born Hispanics dropped out of education before even reaching high school.
Foreign-born Hispanics are particularly concentrated in jobs requiring physical labour. About half are employed on building grounds and in maintenance, construction, factories, or transportation. Another tenth are employed in food services. Given the high proportion of undocumented foreign-born Hispanics, that means millions of largely low-skilled jobs are held by illegal immigrants.6 Coinciding with rapid job decline in the manufacturing industries that traditionally employed White working-class Americans, these data help explain why anger over illegal immigration is especially concentrated among this group.
- Hispanic-Americans are disproportionately poor
The median household income for Hispanics born in the US is about $46,000 a year, well below the equivalent $61,000 for Whites. Over one-fifth of Hispanics, and over 30% of Hispanics under 18 years old, live in poverty. This increased likelihood of poverty and low income makes Hispanics much likelier to receive means-tested government benefits than their White or Asian counterparts. Over one-fifth of Hispanics receive food stamps and nearly 40% rely on one of the many publicly-financed programs for their health insurance.7
- Hispanic-Americans are concentrated in a small number of large states
Hispanics are concentrated in the American West and Southwest, especially in those states bordering Mexico. Hispanics comprise nearly half of New Mexico’s population, nearly 40% of California’s and Texas’, and about 30% of Arizona’s and Nevada’s. Most Hispanics in these states are of Mexican origin. Other states with high Hispanic populations, such as Florida (25%), New York (19%), and New Jersey (19%) tend to draw their Hispanic populations from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Central and South America. All told, about 40 million of America’s 56 million Hispanic residents live in one of these eight states.
- Hispanics tend to favour big government and vote Democrat
Hispanics are supportive of a much more energetic role for government than are Whites. A 2013 survey found that by a nearly 2-1 margin, Hispanics backed higher taxes and more government spending over lower taxes as a means to encourage economic growth. The same survey also found that Hispanics strongly supported government action to reduce income inequality (72%) and to guarantee all Americans had health insurance (58%). While Hispanics do oppose abortion (52%), they prioritise other domestic issues such as education and the economy over this. Since the Republican Party remains at least rhetorically committed to reducing spending, cutting taxes, and limiting government’s role in addressing social problems, these attitudes partly explain why Hispanics are generally supportive of Democrats.
Whether measured in terms of partisan identification or by actual voting behaviour, most Hispanics prefer and vote for the Democratic Party.8 This preference has already moved the once-Republican states of Colorado and Nevada into the Democratic column, and placed the former swing state of New Mexico out of the Republicans’ reach. One respected analysis estimates that the Hispanic share of eligible voters will rise from today’s 12% to 18% by 2036.
Cultural and political challenges await
Predicting the future is a fool’s game, but there are nevertheless some clear implications for American culture and politics that no degree of choice or chance can prevent.
Hispanic and Asian immigration have already made White Christians a minority. This, along with the concurrent rise in atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-Christian belief, is one reason the status of Christian beliefs and institutions play such a large role in American politics. In the 1980s, the religious right called itself the ‘Moral Majority’ and sought to rally the majority of White Christians behind an agenda designed to reinstitute traditional Christian beliefs.
Today, White Christian activists know they no longer constitute a majority, but fear the fallout from becoming a clear minority. Managing this change peacefully and in such a way that both the new majority and White Christians have a respected place in American life and politics is one of the greatest challenges America will face.
Hispanics, most notably Mexicans, will clearly have significantly more political power in the next two decades. In the past, American immigrant groups have brought their culture and experiences from the country of their origin to bear on their political engagement. We can, therefore, expect America to take a growing interest in Mexican affairs, which will likely mean a decline in interest in other regions of the globe. Combined with the rise in Asian political power, this could lead to a re-evaluation of the importance that traditional ties with European countries should play in American global policy.
Hispanic preferences for a more active and extensive government will also create political conflict with economically dominant Whites. Even though Hispanic income is likely to rise as the children of immigrants attain higher levels of education, and hence obtain higher paying jobs, Hispanics will continue to be disproportionately lower-income for the foreseeable future.
But while the increase in their economic power may be slow to take off, their political power is rising much more quickly, and with it, that of the White population will decline. It should not be a surprise if the result is heightened political struggle between a political coalition influenced by Hispanic desires for increased taxes to fund more social services and one heavily comprised of Whites who will pay those taxes. The ethnic and racial dimensions of this conflict could give rise to greater racial and ethnic tension within America.
These tensions could be exacerbated by another phenomenon: White ageing. The median age of Whites continues to increase as the largely White Baby Boomer generation ages and fertility rates for younger adults decline. Since America pays for its state pensions through a tax on wages, Hispanics will be paying the taxes to support a largely White retired community.
Retirees would clearly exert their political power to continue these benefits, which in turn will could lead to large numbers of working-class Hispanics either pushing for cuts to pension benefits, increasing taxes on higher earners, or taxing unearned income (which accrues to Whites in much higher proportions) to support pensions.9 Adding racial and ethnic dimensions to the pressing political issue of social security increases the likelihood that American society will be more, not less, divided in the future.
Conclusion: Demography need not be destiny
Social and political conflict that arises from demographic change is not, however, a new occurrence in American history. In prior eras of mass immigration, American leaders insisted that immigrants abide by majority norms in terms of democratic values and the role of the state, even as they fought intensely over social norms such as the role of Catholic schools, language, and alcohol consumption. At one point, the native-born Protestant majority even used its political power to outlaw alcohol consumption (1919) and virtually end immigration (1925). But an affinity on the part of both the native and the foreign-born with American ideals kept these conflicts from disrupting essential American unity.
These previous generations did this by limiting the scope of their political claims and by emphasising each sides’ loyalty to republican self-government. And native-born Americans, largely White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs, to Americans), did not argue that immigrants already in America be deported to their country of origin. Nor did they try to prevent them from voting, holding political office, or practising the bulk of customs they brought over from ‘the old country’.
It is true that WASPs often practised widespread social discrimination against newcomers, including, for example, refusing to hire immigrants or denying them admission to universities or private clubs. But they did not seek to prevent immigrants from becoming full legal citizens, or from using that political power to enact laws more favourable to the immigrant population’s views.
Immigrant populations, in turn, largely respected these boundaries. Catholics, in particular, emphasised that they supported the idea of religious freedom no matter what pronouncements came from the Vatican. Catholic politicians always maintained that their first loyalty was to the US, and that they would faithfully execute American laws no matter what the Pope or the Church said. And in the face of discrimination, immigrants built their own institutions – universities, social groups, and clubs – to rival those to which their access was restricted or denied. Any loyalties to the home country were subsumed under their loyalty to America.
Similar prudence and shared commitment will be necessary in the coming decades to manage the growth of the Hispanic-American population. Should such shrewd social and political leadership be forthcoming, these new Americans should energise and enrich America economically and culturally just as prior immigrant waves did. Should such statesmanship be lacking, however, America is at risk of following in the footsteps of countless nation-states that fail because racially and ethnically derived identities trump, and ultimately destroy, the national identity that allows people of different backgrounds to live together in harmony.