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A New Latino Underclass
With gang violence up, social trends down, some fear immigration influx will overwhelm tradition of assimilation.
By Heather Mac Donald
Hispanic gang violence is spreading across the country, the sign of a new underclass in the making.
Hispanic youths, whether recent arrivals or birthright American citizens, are developing an underclass culture. Hispanic school dropout rates and teen birthrates are now the highest in the nation. Gang crime is exploding nationally - rising 50 percent from 1999 to 2002 - driven by the march of Hispanic immigration east and north across the country. Most worrisome, underclass indicators like crime and single parenthood do not improve over successive generations of Hispanics - they worsen.
Debate has recently heated up over whether Mexican immigration - unique in its scale and in other important ways - will defeat the American tradition of assimilation. The rise of underclass behavior among the progeny of Mexicans and other Central Americans must be part of that debate. There may be assimilation going on, but a significant portion of it is assimilation downward to the worst elements of American life.
To be sure, most Hispanics are hardworking, law-abiding residents; they have reclaimed squalid neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere. Yet given the magnitude of present immigration levels, if only a portion of those from south of the border goes bad, the costs to society will be enormous.
David O'Connell, pastor of the church next door to the Soledad Enrichment Charter School, which is the vortex of LA's youth gang culture, has been fighting gangbanging for over a decade. He rues the "ferocious stuff" that is currently coming out of Central America, sounding weary and pessimistic. But "what's more frightening," he says, "is the disengagement from adults." Hispanic children feel that they have to deal with problems themselves, apart from their parents, according to Mr. O'Connell, and they "do so in violent ways." The adults, for their part, start to fear young people, including their own children.
The pull to a culture of violence among Hispanic children begins earlier and earlier, Mr. O'Connell says. Researchers and youth workers across the country confirm his observation. In Chicago, gangs start recruiting kids at age 9, according to criminologists studying policing and social trends in the Windy City. The Chicago Community Policing Evaluation Consortium concluded that gangs have become fully integrated into Hispanic youth culture; even children not in gangs emulate their attitudes, dress and self-presentation.
Even as it reaches down to ever-younger recruits, gang culture is growing more lethal. The unwritten code that moderated gang violence three or four decades ago has fallen away. "When I grew up," says Santa Ana native and gang investigator Kevin Ruiz, "there were rules of engagement: no shooting at churches or at home. Now, no one is immune."
The constant invasion of illegal aliens is worsening gang violence as well. And upward mobility to the suburbs doesn't necessarily break the allure of gang culture. An immigration agent reports that in the middle-class suburbs of southwest Miami, second- and third-generation Hispanic youths are perpetrating home invasions, robberies, battery, drug sales and rape. "This is beyond a regional problem. It is, in fact, a national problem," said FBI Assistant Director Michael Mason, head of the bureau's Washington field office.
Many cops and youth workers blame the increase in gang appeal on the disintegration of the Hispanic family. The trends are worsening, especially for U.S.-born Hispanics. Nationally, single-parent households constituted 25 percent of all Hispanic households with minor children in 1980; by 2000, the proportion had jumped to 34 percent. The trends in teen parenthood – the marker of underclass behavior - will almost certainly affect the crime and gang rate. Hispanics now outrank blacks for teen births.
In one respect, Central American immigrants break the mold of traditional American underclass behavior: They work. Even so, Mexican welfare receipt is twice as high as that of natives, in large part because Mexican-American incomes are so low, and remain low over successive generations.
On the final component of underclass behavior - school failure – Hispanics are in a class by themselves. No other group drops out in greater numbers. In 2000, nearly 30 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24 were high school dropouts nationwide, compared with about 13 percent of blacks and about 7 percent of whites.
The constant inflow of barely literate recent Mexican arrivals unquestionably brings down Hispanic education levels. But later American-born generations don't brighten the picture much. Mexican-Americans are assimilating not to the national schooling average, observed the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas this June, but to the dramatically lower "Hispanic average." In educational outcomes, concluded the bank, "Ethnicity matters."
No one knows why this is so. Every parent I spoke to said that she wanted her children to do well in school and go to college. Yet the message is often not getting across. "Hispanic parents are the kind of parents that leave it to others," explains an unwed Salvadoran welfare mother in Santa Ana. "We don't get that involved."
Proponents of unregulated immigration simply ignore the growing underclass problem among later generations of Hispanics. When pressed, open-borders advocates dismiss worries about the Hispanic future with their favorite comparison between Mexicans and Italians.
The analogy goes like this: A century ago, Italian immigration anticipated the Mexican influx, above all in Italians' disregard for education. They dropped out of school in high numbers - yet they eventually prospered and joined the mainstream. Therefore, Mexicans will too.
But the analogy is flawed. To begin with, the magnitude of Mexican immigration renders all historical comparisons irrelevant, as Harvard historian Samuel Huntington argues. In 2000, Mexicans constituted nearly 30 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S. But in 1910, Italians made up barely a seventh of the immigrant population. There was no chance that Italian would become the dominant language in any part of the country. By contrast, half of today's immigrants speak Spanish.
Equally important, the flow of newcomers came to an abrupt halt after World War I and did not resume until 1965. This long pause allowed the country ample opportunity to Americanize the foreign-born and their children. Today, no end is in sight to the migration from Mexico and its neighbors, which continually reinforces Mexican culture in American Hispanic communities and seems likely to do so for decades. Meanwhile, the Mexican government does everything it can to bind Mexican migrants psychologically to the home country, in order to safeguard the annual $12 billion flow of remittances.
There are many counterexamples that show a salutary effect of Hispanic immigration. Santa Ana, Calif., at 76 percent Latino the most heavily Spanish-speaking city of its size in the country, has cleaned up the seedy bars from its downtown area and replaced them with palm trees and benches.
Yet a seemingly innocuous block in Santa Ana can host five to eight households dedicated to gangbanging or drug sales.
Gang officer Ruiz drives by the modest tract home where his Mexican father, who worked in Orange County's farming industry, raised him in the 1950s. A car with a shattered windshield, a trailer and minivan sit in the back yard, surrounded by piles of junk and a mattress leaning on the garage door. "My mom taught us that even if you're poor, you should be neat," he says, shaking his head. These days, 50-year-old men are still dressing like Chicano gangsters, Mr. Ruiz says, and fathers are ordering barbers to shave their young sons bald in good gang tradition.
Without prompting, Mr. Ruiz brings up the million-dollar question: "I don't see assimilation," he says. "They want to hold on to Hispanic culture." Mr. Ruiz thinks that today's Mexican immigrant is a "totally different kind of person" from the past. Rather than aggressively seizing the opportunities available to them, especially in education, they have learned to play the victim card, he thinks.
Mr. Ruiz advocates a much more aggressive approach. "We need to explain, 'We'll help you assimilate up to a certain point, but then you have to take advantage of what's here.'"
Mr. Ruiz's observations will strike anyone who has hired eager Mexican and Central American workers as incredible. I pressed him repeatedly, insisting that Americans see Mexican immigrants as cheerful and hardworking, but he was adamant. "We're creating an underclass," he maintained.
Immigration optimists, ever ready to trumpet the benefits of today's immigration wave, have refused to acknowledge its costs. Foremost among them are skyrocketing gang crime and an expanding underclass. Until the country figures out how to reduce these costs, maintaining the current open-borders regime is folly. We should enforce our immigration laws and select immigrants on skills and likely upward mobility, not success in sneaking across the border.
Heather Mac Donald writes for City Journal (www.city-journal.org). E-mail: email@example.com.
©2004 Dallas Morning News
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