Scholars examine Latino Immigration and American National Identity

Washington, DC–Latino immigrants to the U.S. are more diverse, successful, and assimilating more rapidly than is widely assumed in public debate, scholars observe in recent research published by the American Political Science Association (APSA). While immigration, assimilation, national identity, and relevant public policy questions are rightly being discussed today, the research finds that much of the concerns regarding Latino immigration are rooted in inaccurate assumptions, oversimplifications, and poor data.

These conclusions appear in a research symposium entitled “Immigration and National Identity,” edited by Gary M. Segura (University of Washington), in the June issue of the Perspectives on Politics–a journal of the APSA. The

symposium is online at and is comprised of four articles which consider different aspects of the social and political incorporation of Latino immigrants in the U.S. “The fight…over who is an American, and what constitutes ‘American-ness,’ is and has been an ongoing one for virtually the entire history of the United States,” observes Segura in the introduction.

In “Culture Clash? Contesting Notions of American Identity and the Effects of Latin American Immigration,” Segura and Luis R. Fraga (Stanford University) examine immigration and national identity in the context of American political development. Tracing immigration fears to the pre-Declaration of Independence era, Segura and Fraga agree that Anglo-Protestant culture shaped American national identity but question whether ethno-religious and linguistic traditions are the most critical “binding ties of nationhood” or

“the erosion of in the dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture is inherently destabilizing….” They point to other successful multicultural democracies while cautioning against overlooking the less laudable aspects of Anglo-Protestant dominance which have historically negatively affected socially subordinate groups. Noting the role of the capacity for change in the longevity of the American republic–rather than the maintenance of a static, idealized Anglo-Protestant identity–they advocate a broader and comprehensive reading of American history in the immigration debate.

In “Mexican Americans and the American Dream” Richard Alba (The University at Albany, SUNY) addresses the often used claim that “Mexicans are on their way to forming a separate nation within the U.S.” Underscoring the diversity within the Latino and Mexican immigrant population, the author observes that commonly used standards for assimilation such as comparisons of generations are misleading due to the fact that “different generations originate in different periods of Mexican immigration” as well as the varying impact of institutional discrimination over time. Alba challenges Samuel Huntington’s recent work and concludes that direct evidence of the linguistic assimilation of Mexicans does “not support the notion of a cleavage into separate, language-based subsocieties,” and instead reveals a pattern of “steady intergenerational progress.” While Hispanic groups including Mexicans do show higher rates of bilingualism among 2nd generation adults than European groups in the past, Alba points to high rates of recent immigration as a main cause and asserts that by the third generation “English dominance, if not monolinugalism, is the prevalent pattern.” The author concludes by noting that while some identify cultural and social isolation as the key obstacles to assimilation, it is wise to also consider the barriers to opportunities for immigrants and work to reduce them.

Susan Eckstein (Boston University) authored the third article, “Cuban Emigres and the American Dream,” which focuses on the Cuban immigrant experience and the claim that “Latin Americans are eroding our country’s core Anglo-Protestant values.” Eckstein observes that “what has been good for Cuban Americans has been good for America” in that the Cuban presence in Miami helped transform the city into a commercial hub spanning the Americas and from which all Americans benefit. Notably, the cultural aspects of that transformation were essential as Cuban identity and the Spanish language were central in spurring growth. Moreover, the enduring Catholic religious identity of most Cubans has not hindered their economic integration despite claims that Anglo-Protestant values are the keys to assimilation. Eckstein also examines the “social and cultural separateness” between Cuban Americans and non-Hispanics in Florida that has led Cubans to form their own municipal, voluntary, and professional associations over time–a key aspect of their success. However, despite the fact that Cuban Americans exhibit high rates of citizenship, voter registration and political participation, they remain “internally divided and increasingly so,” a phenomenon driven by the changing nature of the type of Cubans immigrants–from those who fled the Castro revolution and were typically privileged in the pre-revolution era, to those who have lived under the Castro regime. These different cohorts have “shared unequally in the American Dream” and differ in their levels of economic success, language adoption, political engagement, and overall assimilation in the U.S. She concludes by observing that the Cuban American experience has been uniquely shaped by its encounter with Anglo society in Florida and that “if there is not one single Cuban American experience, even less is there a single Hispanic experience.”