Posted on May 19, 2006

Is Racism Fueling the Immigration Debate?

Massimo Calabresi, Time, May 17, 2006

On May 10, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on a new census report that said 45% of the nation’s children under the age of five are racial or ethnic minorities, and that the percentage is increasing primarily because the Hispanic population is growing so rapidly. If you read those facts carefully, you’d probably find them interesting, but not necessarily sufficient to draw any sweeping conclusions about the demographic and cultural future of the country.

If, however, you wanted to make a point about the dangers of illegal immigration, you might interpret the findings in your own particular way. On May 11, John Gibson of Fox News implored viewers to, “Do your duty. Make more babies . . . half of the kids in this country under five years old are minorities. By far the greatest number are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic. Why is that? Well, the Hispanics are having more kids than others. Notably the ones Hispanics call gabachos, white people, are having fewer.”

Gibson is, of course, wildly wrong and not just because he rounds 45% up to “half” or conflates all racial and ethnic minorities with Hispanics. The Hispanic population is growing more rapidly than the white population, but nothing like what he fears. According to a projection released last year by the Census bureau, in 2030 the Hispanic population of the U.S. will be about 20.1%. Fifty years from now, the majority of Americans will still be white and 24.4% will be Hispanic.

But his comments brought to light what many Democrats contend is really beneath the fight over immigration — a hint of racism or nativism. “I have no doubt that some of those involved in the debate have their position based on fear and perhaps racism because of what’s happening demographically in the country,” says Ken Salazar, Democratic Senator from Colorado. A Senate Democratic leadership aide is more blunt: “A lot of the anti-immigration movement is jingoistic at best and racist at worst. There is a fear of white people being over run by darker-skinned people.”


Just as important, the debate could address the issue of race head-on: should ethnicity be a factor in granting citizenship? There are a small number of respectable scholars, like Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington, who argue that the large Hispanic influx into America does threaten its character. A large number of other respectable scholars say German, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Asian immigrants faced the same criticism throughout the country’s history. But until politicians define the goals of American immigration policy — who and how many do we want and for what reason — it will be impossible to strip out the influence of anti-immigrant forces who, whether racist or not, draw dubious conclusions and make misleading statements.