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Opinion

What will America stand for in 2050?

The US should think long and hard about the high number of Latino immigrants.

By Lawrence Harrison / May 28, 2009



Palo Alto, Calif.

President Obama has encouraged Americans to start laying a new foundation for the country – on a number of fronts. He has stressed that we'll need to have the courage to make some hard choices. One of those hard choices is how to handle immigration. The US must get serious about the tide of legal and illegal immigrants, above all from Latin America.

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It's not just a short-run issue of immigrants competing with citizens for jobs as unemployment approaches 10 percent or the number of uninsured straining the quality of healthcare. Heavy immigration from Latin America threatens our cohesiveness as a nation.

The political realities of the rapidly growing Latino population are such that Mr. Obama may be the last president who can avert the permanent, vast underclass implied by the current Census Bureau projection for 2050.

Do I sound like a right-wing "nativist"? I'm not. I'm a lifelong Democrat; an early and avid supporter of Obama. I'm gratified by his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. I'm also the grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants; and a member, along with several other Democrats, of the advisory boards of the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Pro English. Similar concerns preoccupied the distinguished Democrat Barbara Jordan when she chaired the congressionally mandated US Commission on Immigration Reform in the 1990s.

Congresswoman Jordan was worried about the adverse impact of high levels of legal and illegal immigration on poor citizens, disproportionately Latinos and African-Americans. The principal beneficiaries of our current immigration policy are affluent Americans who hire immigrants at substandard wages for low-end work. Harvard economist George Borjas estimates that American workers lose $190 billion annually in depressed wages caused by the constant flooding of the labor market at the low-wage end.

The healthcare cost of the illegal workforce is especially burdensome, and is subsidized by taxpayers. To claim Medicaid, you must be legal, but as the Health and Human Services inspector general found, 47 states allow self-declaration of status for Medicaid. Many hospitals and clinics are going broke because of the constant stream of uninsured, many of whom are the estimated 12 million to 15 million illegal immigrants. This translates into reduced services, particularly for lower-income citizens.

The US population totaled 281 million in 2000. About 35 million, or 12.5 percent, were Latino. The Census Bureau projects that our population will reach 439 million in 2050, a 56 percent increase over the 2000 census. The Hispanic population in 2050 is projected at 133 million – 30 percent of the total and almost quadruple the 2000 level. Population growth is the principal threat to the environment via natural resource use, sprawl, and pollution. And population growth is fueled chiefly by immigration.

Consider what this, combined with worrisome evidence that Latinos are not melting into our cultural mainstream, means for the US. Latinos have contributed some positive cultural attributes, such as multigenerational family bonds, to US society. But the same traditional values that lie behind Latin America's difficulties in achieving democratic stability, social justice, and prosperity are being substantially perpetuated among Hispanic-Americans.

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