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Hash of Civilizations

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 03.03.04

If a Nobel Prize in political science were ever announced, Samuel Huntington would undoubtedly be among the initial recipients. Five years ago, Jonathan Cohn declared in TNR that Huntington was "his generation's most influential student of international relations." Cohn was understating the case--Huntington has written books that remain standards not only in international relations but in American and comparative politics as well. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, his most popular book, seemed so trenchant after the September 11 attacks that it crept back onto The New York Times bestseller list five years after its publication.

Throughout his career, Huntington has been unafraid of taking the iconoclastic position and making the politically incorrect argument. His latest work on Hispanic immigration--an article that appeared in this month's issue of Foreign Policy and is based on his forthcoming book--is no exception. Huntington argues that the current wave of Hispanic immigration threatens America's national identity. As always, he makes some provocative and worthwhile points. But he also makes some dubious ones--and, oddly, manages to contradict his own arguments from Clash of Civilizations.

The core thesis of the piece is likely to cause plenty of controversy:

In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives. Americans like to boast of their past success in assimilating millions of immigrants into their society, culture, and politics. But Americans have tended to generalize about immigrants without distinguishing among them and have focused on the economic costs and benefits of immigration, ignoring its social and cultural consequences. As a result, they have overlooked the unique characteristics and problems posed by contemporary Hispanic immigration. The extent and nature of this immigration differ fundamentally from those of previous immigration, and the assimilation successes of the past are unlikely to be duplicated with the contemporary flood of immigrants from Latin America. This reality poses a fundamental question: Will the United States remain a country with a single national language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture? By ignoring this question, Americans acquiesce to their eventual transformation into two peoples with two cultures (Anglo and Hispanic) and two languages (English and Spanish).

Huntington argues that the Hispanic wave of immigration--especially the Mexican component--differs from previous immigration in key ways. Unlike nineteenth-century immigration, the current flow of newcomers comes mostly from one country: Mexico. Because of geographic proximity, he writes, Hispanic immigrants are more likely to remain in "intimate contact" with friends and families in their home countries; more likely to enter illegally; and more likely to stay regionally concentrated in the Southwest--that is, in areas that in 1835 were part of Mexico proper. The result, Huntington argues, is that "the Southwest could become the United States' Quebec."

Huntington is hardly the first to make this kind of argument. Benjamin Franklin complained during the colonial era that Germans immigrating to Philadelphia "are generally the most stupid of their nation. ... Few of their children know English." In 1921, Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote, "The new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, with its lower standard of living and characteristic racial differences has intensified many existing social problems and created a number of new ones."

Franklin and Schlesinger were proved wrong, because those immigrants eventually assimilated. And in an election season when both parties are wooing Hispanic voters, most of the political class will want Huntington to be wrong, too. That doesn't mean that he actually is wrong--and his scholarly record is too long and distinguished to warrant a quick dismissal. Indeed, Huntington is correct to point out that Mexican immigrants are poorer and less well educated than either native-born Americans or other immigrant groups. But that's an economic argument that is irrelevant to Huntington's core thesis, which takes as its focus questions of culture and identity. On those fronts, his argument has some significant flaws.

Start with language. Huntington worries that large homogenous enclaves of Hispanics will weaken the incentive to learn English. The key test for this assertion is not whether first-generation Mexican immigrants speak English, but whether second-generation Mexican-Americans speak it. On this question, Huntington concedes that "English language use and fluency for first- and second-generation Mexicans thus seem to follow the pattern common to past immigrants." He then voices concern that this trend may not continue to third-generation children. But according to Richard Alba and Victor Nee's Remaking the American Mainstream, 60 percent of third-generation Mexican-American children speak only English at home. A 1990 Census study showed that only 5 percent of first-generation Mexican immigrants spoke English at home; another study showed that 30 percent of second-generation Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles spoke English at home. Taken along with Alba and Nee's evidence, this suggests that Mexican-Americans, like other immigrant groups, are becoming more likely with each generation to adopt English as their primary language.

Huntington also leaves himself open to attack on the question of regional concentration, noting that Hispanic-Americans are strongly concentrated in areas closest to their entry point of immigration--the Southwest and Miami. However, Huntington is disregarding the recent nature of much of this immigration. One hundred years ago, "immigrants moved disproportionately into the most rapidly growing centers on the East Coast, but not elsewhere in the United States," according to Kevin O'Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson's Globalization and History. There is evidence that Hispanics are starting to expand beyond their traditional locales. Huntington's own data shows that the states experiencing the largest increases in Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000 were outside of traditional Hispanic enclaves--North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

He also contends that Hispanic immigrants are more likely to retain ties with their country of origin. But he conveniently overlooks that nineteenth-century immigrants often did the same thing. According to O'Rourke and Williamson, U.S. officials estimated that between 1870 and 1914, 30 percent of immigrants emigrated back to the country they came from. Among Italians, the rate approached 50 percent because young Italian men went back and forth between the new world and the old country in search of work. Searching for evidence of the putatively limited loyalty of Mexican-Americans to their adopted country, Huntington is reduced to relaying anecdotes and the self-serving comments of Mexican politicians.

Huntington is slippery on the question of identity--sometimes he writes about Hispanics writ large, sometimes he focuses on Mexicans in particular. Studies of Hispanics as a group suggest a fair number of cross-cutting cleavages that Huntington discounts, among them country of origin. One University of Albany analysis of census data concluded: "It is becoming harder to talk generally about 'Hispanics'--increasingly, we will have to recognize that there are many Hispanic situations in America." Huntington seems content to ignore these distinctions.

In addition to these flaws, the argument contains a final oddity: It undercuts Huntington's contentions about identity from Clash of Civilizations. That book argued that religion was the most important indicator for cultural identity, followed by language. Hispanics are certainly not outliers from the American mainstream in terms of religious affiliation, and to date they are no different from other immigrant groups in terms of language assimilation. Huntington concluded in his 1996 book that "the cultural distance between Mexico and the United States is far less than that between Turkey and Europe." Furthermore, he acknowledged in Clash that if any culture is changing in the Western Hemisphere, it is the one south of the Rio Grande: "Mexico has attempted to redefine itself from a Latin American to a North American identity and Chile and other states may follow," he wrote. "In the end, Latin American civilization could merge into and become one subvariant of a three-pronged Western civilization."

Huntington is right about at least one general point: America's current immigration situation is far from perfect. Illegal immigration remains an unsolved problem. The official U.S. immigration policy of prioritizing family reunification over educational attainment makes little economic sense, and is worthy of further debate. Huntington is correct to highlight the educational deficit of Mexican immigrants as a first step to addressing the problem. But raising the specter of a Mexican-induced American identity crisis distracts far more than it informs. Samuel Huntington may want to go back and reread his most famous book.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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