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Latinos' 'defining moment' studied



WASHINGTON — Low-skilled illegal immigrants are slowing the ascension of Latinos, as a group, into the U.S. middle class, the nation's most prestigious research group warned Wednesday.

The National Research Council pressed for more schooling and better health care to assist the Latino immigrants, suggesting that the future of the fabled melting pot may be at stake.

"The first decade of the 21st century is a defining moment for the Hispanic population and for the nation," said Marta Tienda, a Princeton University sociologist who was chairwoman of the new study. "We are in the midst of a Hispanic moment."

Many of the findings sound familiar. The Latino population is younger, less educated and more fertile than the overall U.S. population, researchers noted in their 176-page report. Latinos are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

"That's consistent," said Belinda Reyes, professor of public policy at the University of California at Merced. "Some of it is access to health care; a Latino with diabetes may not have access to preventive care."

At the same time, researchers see brighter possibilities in the rapid population growth that by 2030 will mean nearly one in four U.S. residents will be Latino. The children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants can help shoulder the burdens of a graying society, the 12-person team of researchers concluded.

"We can focus on this as a glass half empty," Tienda said, "or we can take it as an opportunity … as a 'Sí, se puede' ('Yes, it can be done') moment."

The National Research Council is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. While apolitical, the research team did provide ammunition for various sides in the revived immigration reform debate.

Today, that debate takes further shape as the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up an immigration bill that will shape how the extensively studied Latino population changes in coming years.

Two years in the making, "Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies" conveys the possibility of different outcomes for the nation's 40 million Latinos. In particular, researchers note the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants will be maturing just as the white population grows older.

Tellingly, for instance, 12 percent of all U.S. residents reached retirement age in 2000. Less than 5 percent of all Latinos reached retirement age.

"Their economic and social integration will depend on educational investments made today," the report states.

Like many previous reports, the National Research Council notes that Latinos tend to have larger families. Intriguingly, though, family sizes shrink the longer immigrants remain in this country.

Immigrant Mexican woman, for instance, have 2.7 children on average. Second-generation Mexican-American women have 2.1 children on average.

Cuban-Americans are much more likely to be well-educated than are Mexican-Americans.

Latinos also identify themselves differently.

For instance, four out of five Cuban-Americans identified themselves as white on the 2000 census, while other Latinos were less likely to call themselves white.

"Painting Hispanics with a big brush will often get you into trouble," Tienda said.

Many are assimilating, thanks to marriage and exposure to U.S. culture. The research team, for instance, observed that Latinos steadily are moving away from Spanish; the grandchildren of the current wave of immigrants likely will speak English only, the researchers predict.

At the same time, the Latino immigrant population is set apart in some dangerous ways. Among Latinos born in this country, for instance, nearly 30 percent are obese. Among the native-born U.S. population, roughly 23 percent are obese.

While 10.8 percent of Latinos born in this country are diabetic, the disease afflicts only 6.1 percent of native-born U.S. residents.

The report echoes many previous studies in the dire assessment of Latino schooling.

For instance, the dropout rate among foreign-born Latino youth reached 34 percent in 2000, compared with 14 percent for native-born youth. Most of those who dropped out already were behind in school when they arrived in the United States, and the picture does improve with time.

"You see a huge jump in education by the second generation," Reyes said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at 202-383-0006, or