An immigrant waves the flag during a citizenship ceremony in San Diego in 2018. File photo by Chris Stone

Critics of Mexican and Central American immigration have long preached that these immigrants refuse or fail to assimilate into our nation’s society.

However, recent statistics reported by the University of California can be interpreted as demonstrating that over time Latino immigrants are willing and capable participants of assimilation. These statistics should help call into question any attempt to disparage this population’s potential to become productive citizens, and should go far in pointing out the absurdity of scapegoating them for political gain.

While scanning the headlines recently, I was confronted by two widely divergent news articles dealing with Latinos in the United States. The first article reported how Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina tried to blame the spread of COVID-19 in his state on the Latino population—many of them immigrants working in risky essential worker jobs—accusing them, without any evidence, of failing to wear masks or maintain social distancing.

This population currently makes up 44% of North Carolina’s positive cases. Tillis was rightly met with vociferous opposition by critics who countered by accusing him of scapegoating this hardworking population for political purposes.

In the second article, a state milestone was noted as the University of California reported that for the first time Latinos made up the largest ethnic or racial group admitted for the upcoming school year. Of the 75,900 students offered admission to the system’s nine campuses, Latinos comprised 36% of this population, with Asian-Americans next with 35%. The Latino number was up 2% from the previous year.

The two articles represent the dichotomy that serves to symbolize the Latino condition in this country. On the one hand, Tillis’s comments are symptomatic of Trump-era right-wing attempts to depict the Latino immigrant condition as a static one offering no hope of change in social status for as long as they stay in this country (i.e., poor immigrants from so-called “s**t hole” countries will remain poor and never become productive citizens).

On the other hand, the University of California statistics demonstrate how Latinos share the same assimilation success that previous waves of immigrants in our history have enjoyed. The progress in admission numbers reminds us the nature of Latino assimilation—adopting the economic, social and cultural norms of mainstream America—is best understood as a process that takes time, and this process is facilitated by working through the educational system.

By meeting stringent objective and subjective criteria that places a premium on English language proficiency, the admission to a UC campus serves as an undeniable stamp of assimilation approval. This time-dependent process is also reflected by the number of Latino transfers from community college, which also hit an all-time high of 32%, indicating some students require more time than others.

Although the UC statistics do not reveal how many Latino students were first generation immigrants or the sons and daughters of recent immigrants, based on the record breaking increase in the proportion of all “low income” (44%) and “first-generation-to-college”(45%) students, one can infer they composed a significant share of the Latino numbers.

Skeptics might claim the increase in Latino admissions numbers merely reflects a lowering of standards to attain politically correct goals.  However, as a retired high school English teacher I can attest that all of my students (of any ethnic or racial group) admitted to a UC campus possessed the academic potential to handle such academic rigor. The same can be said for those students admitted to the California State University campuses.

Unfortunately, this progress in Latino assimilation still runs the risk of being overlooked or distorted by the dynamics of our current immigration situation. The following realities have long dominated this problematic situation:

  • Both political parties have avoided formulating serious immigration legislation.
  • American businesses remain hungry for cheap labor.
  • Many poor Mexicans and Central Americans will continue their yearning to be part of the Great American Dream.

These realities will invariably produce a continued flow of undocumented immigrants into this country, and these immigrants will primarily consist of poor, low-skilled people. Unfortunately, such a situation will continue to serve as convenient fodder for politicians eager to stoke fear by casting these poor immigrants as unacceptably different, uneducated, and thus a permanent burden to society. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s comment that immigrants make America “poorer” and “dirtier” best reflects this sentiment.

I hope the next administration will work with Congress to finally take on the difficult but necessary task of comprehensive immigration reform. However, with the nation facing a number of significant challenges in the immediate future, it remains uncertain where immigration reform will fit in terms of addressing urgent priorities.

Accordingly, until such time as immigration reform is finally implemented, the American public is left with two choices. One can either take sides with short-sighted politicians and continue the exploitative, cheap-shot scapegoating of poor immigrants, or one can acknowledge that the successful assimilation of Latino immigrants is an inevitable process—one that often involves an inconvenient time lag requiring the next generation to proceed through the educational system before the gold standard of assimilation (a college education) can be said to occur.

Certainly, a college education is not the only way of measuring assimilation; maintaining gainful employment, serving in the military, supporting a family, obtaining citizenship, regularly voting, and encouraging the next generation to pursue an education are all hallmarks of assimilation into American society. In fact, assimilation via these routes requires less time and its impact is more immediately felt.

My point, however, is that Latino progress in gaining admission to a UC campus is a healthy development that effectively illustrates both the inevitability of assimilation and the fallacy of scapegoating newly arrived immigrants. This achievement should be admired and seen as a cause for celebration.

We should not allow politicians to control the narrative by letting them distract attention from this success in favor of misguided or mean-spirited attempts to demean the Latino immigrant presence in this country.

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.

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