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What Hispanic challenge?

In a controversial FP March/April 2004 cover story (we’re all for debate over here at FP), Sam Huntington argued that the U.S. faces a “Hispanic challenge”, and that if immigration from Latin America continues unabated, America will be split into “two peoples, two cultures, two languages”. This culturalist argument has since been echoed by anti-immigration ...

In a controversial FP March/April 2004 cover story (we’re all for debate over here at FP), Sam Huntington argued that the U.S. faces a “Hispanic challenge”, and that if immigration from Latin America continues unabated, America will be split into “two peoples, two cultures, two languages”. This culturalist argument has since been echoed by anti-immigration lobbyists and politicans across the country, with particular emphasis on the question of English vs. Spanish as a national language:

[I]f Mexican immigration abruptly stopped…[t]he inflow of immigrants would again become highly diverse, creating increased incentives for all immigrants to learn English and absorb U.S. culture. And most important of all, the possibility of a de facto split between a predominantly Spanish-speaking United States and an English-speaking United States would disappear, and with it, a major potential threat to the country’s cultural and political integrity.

As a first generation (non-Hispanic) immigrant, I’ve always found it hard to believe that anyone could get by for long in the U.S. without learning English. And a groundbreaking study by leading sociologists at Princeton and UC Irvine soundly debunks this pillar of the anti-immigration argument:

Although the generational life expectancy of Spanish is greater among Mexicans in Southern California than other groups, its demise is all but assured by the third generation.

The research finds that Spanish is all but “lingustically dead” among third generation Latinos and Hispanics. This throws a serious wrench into the intellectual machinery behind so many anti-Latin immigration movements. How was Huntington so wrong? He only looked at the second generation, and was just guessing about the third:

If the second generation does not reject Spanish outright, the third generation is also likely to be bilingual, and fluency in both languages is likely to become institutionalized in the Mexican-American community.

Though the study doesn’t disprove some of Huntington’s other reasonable points, it just goes to show how important facts are in the Hispanic immigration debate, and just how misleading guesswork and intuition can be. 

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