The rise of Latinos is a huge opportunity. The United States must not squander it
A SATIRICAL film in 2004, called “A Day Without a Mexican”, imagined Californians running scared after their cooks, nannies and gardeners had vanished. Set it in today’s America and it would be a more sobering drama. If 57m Hispanics were to disappear, public-school playgrounds would lose one child in four and employers from Alaska to Alabama would struggle to stay open. Imagine the scene by mid-century, when the Latino population is set to have doubled again.
Listen to some, and foreign scroungers threaten America, a soft-hearted country with a wide-open border. For almost two centuries after America was founded, more than 80% of its citizens were whites of European descent. Today, non-Hispanic whites have dropped below two-thirds of the population. They are on course to become a minority by 2044. At a recent gathering of Republicans with presidential ambitions, a former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, growled about “illegal people” rushing in “because they’ve heard that there is a bowl of food just across the border.”
A Hispanic attack
Those who whip up border fever are wrong on the facts. The southern frontier has never been harder to cross. Recent Hispanic population growth has mostly been driven by births, not fresh immigration. Even if the borders could somehow be sealed and every unauthorised migrant deported—which would be cruel and impossible—some 48m legally resident Hispanics would remain. Latino growth will not be stopped.
They are also wrong about demography. From Europe to north-east Asia, the 21st century risks being an age of old people, slow growth and sour, timid politics. Swelling armies of the elderly will fight to defend their pensions and other public services. Between now and mid-century, Germany’s median age will rise to 52. China’s population growth will flatten and then fall; its labour force is already shrinking. Not America’s. By 2050 its median age will be a sprightly 41 and its population will still be growing. Latinos will be a big part of that story.
The nativists fret that Hispanics will be a race apart, tied to homelands racked by corruption and crime. Early migrants from Europe, they note, built new lives an ocean away from their ancestral lands. Hispanics, by contrast, can maintain ties with relatives who stayed behind, thanks to cheap flights and Skype. This fear is wildly exaggerated. People can love two countries, just as loving your spouse does not mean you love your mother less. Nativists are distracting America from the real task, which is to make Hispanic integration a success.
An unprecedented test of social mobility looms. Today’s Latinos are poorer and worse-educated than the American average. As a vast (and mostly white) cohort of middle-class baby-boomers retires, America must educate the young Hispanics who will replace them, or the whole country will suffer. Some states understand what is at stake—and are passing laws to make college cheaper for children with good grades but the wrong legal status. Others are going backwards. Texas Republicans are debating whether to make college costlier for undocumented students—a baffling move in a state where, by 2050, Hispanic workers will outnumber whites three to one.
Politicians of both left and right will have to change their tune. For a start, they will have to stop treating Hispanics as almost a single-issue group—as either villains or victims of the immigration system. Almost 1m Latinos reach voting age each year. With every election, Hispanics will want to hear less about immigration and more about school reform, affordable health care and policies to help them get into the middle class.
Republicans have the most work ahead. The party has done a wretched job of making Latinos feel welcome, and suffered for it at the polls. Just 27% of Hispanics voted for Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, after he suggested that life should be made so miserable for migrants without legal papers that they “self-deport”. Yet Democrats have no reason to be smug. At present, most Latinos do not vote at all; as they grow more prosperous their votes will be up for grabs. Jeb Bush, a putative White House contender in 2016 who is married to a Latina, has wooed Latinos by saying that illegal migration is often an act of family “love”.
Since their votes cannot be taken for granted, Hispanics will become ever more influential. This is especially true of those who leave the Catholic church to become Protestants. This subset already outnumbers Jewish-Americans, and is that rare thing: a true swing electorate, backing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. America should welcome the competition: its sclerotic democracy needs swing voters.
Chilies in the mix
Anxious Americans should have more faith in their system. High-school-graduation rates are rising among Latinos; teenage pregnancy is falling. Inter-marriage between Hispanics and others is rising. The children and grandchildren of migrants are learning English—just like immigrants of the past. They are bringing something new, too. A distinctive, bilingual Hispanic American culture is blurring old distinctions between Mexican-Americans and other Latinos. That culture’s swaggering soft power can be felt across the Spanish-speaking world: just ask artists such as Romeo Santos, a bachata singer of Dominican-Puerto Rican stock, raised in the Bronx. His name is unknown to many Anglos, but he has sold out Yankee Stadium in New York (twice) and 50,000-seat stadiums from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. One of his hits, “Propuesta Indecente”, has been viewed on YouTube more than 600m times.
America has been granted an extraordinary stroke of luck: a big dose of youth and energy, just as its global competitors are greying. Making the most of this chance will take pragmatism and goodwill. Get it right, and a diverse, outward-facing America will have much to teach the world.
Read more on The Economist’s special report on Hispanics: