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Mexican immigrants assimilate differently than Europeans did

Brady McCombs, (Bio)
July 24, 2005

The continued and increasing flow of Mexican immigrants in the past 30 years has altered the traditional assimilation patterns and created tension between U.S.-born Latinos and newer immigrants, according to an immigration researcher.

Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the abundance of immigrants has changed the way immigrants adapt to their new country. European immigrants in the early 1900s had to learn English to communicate, work and live because it was the only common language shared by fellow immigrants and natives. However, current Mexican immigrants don't have an incentive to learn English because of the prevalence of their native language, Camarota said. The center is a nonpartisan think tank that favors stricter immigration controls.

"That creates a much more different form of assimilation," he said.

Camarota cited a study by his organization that found that the number of Mexican immigrants in Colorado increased six-fold from 1990 to 2000. In 1990, 24 percent, or 33,000, of the foreign-born population in Colorado was from Mexico. In 2000, 50 percent, or 192,000, of the foreign-born population was from Mexico.

"Mexico has come to dominate immigration in a way that no country has dominated it before," he said.

Camarota said the tension between immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos comes from the latter's mixed feelings about illegal immigration.

Camarota said U.S.-born Latinos often feel resentment toward illegal immigrants because they cause crowding in schools and job competition, concerns shared by other U.S. citizens. Those same U.S.-born Latinos, however, will defend illegal immigrants when critics "racialize" the debate, or use rhetoric classifying all illegal immigrants as Latinos, he said.

Likewise, Camarota said, new immigrants sometimes discriminate against U.S.-born Latinos who don't speak Spanish.

Michelle Holling, a Colorado State University assistant professor of speech communication and ethnic studies, said she was less convinced that tension exists between the two groups. If it does, then it comes from not only Latinos themselves but also legislators and media, she said.

She said the diversity among Latinos comes as much from class, gender, education and religion differences as their duration in the U.S.

"After all, Latinos and Chicanos are not a monolithic group," Holling said.

If the public better understood how U.S. politics and economics, along with social attitudes, shape the treatment of Latino immigrants, attitudes toward illegal immigrants might shift, she said.

-- Brady McCombs