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Remembering the American Dream

Hispanic Immigration and National Policy

By Roberto Suro

Over the past generation, immigration has surged again in the United States, reaching levels not seen since the turn of the century. And the turmoil that accompanies such change–this time involving most notably a large increase in new immigrants from Latin America–parallels that of earlier periods of upheaval. The truth is that, in terms of the quantity and ethnic origins of its new residents, the United States is still a work in progress.

In the past, questions and concerns have focused on the very large Hispanic, especially Mexican, immigration to the United States. The Hispanic population counted in the 1990 census included 7.8 million people born in other countries. This attention, of course, is not because a substantial Hispanic population is a new phenomenon, particularly in the Southwest. (The census also revealed more than 14 million native-born Hispanic Americans.) It is, in fact, merely the latest expression of adjustment, uneasiness, and uncertainty caused by renewed large scale change in the nation’s population.

In the pages that follow, Roberto Suro, strikes exactly the right balance on this point, concerning his mission broadly and going well beyond the particulars of recent Hispanic immigration to set it into the context of the history of American immigration and the evolution of public policy in this area. Suro’s survey of current American policy reveals both the similarities with past policy debates and the special factors that are present in a more mature, more economically stressed America for the 1990s. Suro examines and explains the conflicting evidence regarding the economic impact of immigrants and offers specific recommendations for shifts in policy, including a tax on immigrants.

Suro’s central message is that the real challenge of immigration is not control of entry but rather what to do about the immigrants who succeed in reaching the United States. In other words, how will any group be integrated into the economic mainstream of American life, Suro argues, in effect, that we need to ask how many people we want to admit, in the context of what are we prepared to do with and for them once they are here. This involves an reexamination of the social contract as it affects recent immigrants–a discussion of special importance given the changes in attitudes toward the public sector over the past two decades.

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