Since Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, immigration reform has been at the top of the national agenda. Of course, very little has come of it—apart from some legally dubious executive actions, as well as a lot of blather from pundits, left and right, who seem to have no understanding of the Hispanic community. All we ever get are variations on the same theme: Unless they accept a terrible immigration bill, loaded up with payoffs to special interests, conservatives will be doomed to a permanent minority status. Meanwhile, conservatives are too often caught flat-footed. Apart from a handful of opponents, such as Senator Jeff Sessions, who has brilliantly recast the debate along class, rather than racial, terms, they have very little of value to offer.
But this intellectual drought is finally at an end, thanks to Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. A Race For the Future is a smart, informed take on what the right should do for, and with, Hispanic voters.
This is a book full of provocations, but the most daring move by Gonzalez is to ignore altogether the debate on immigration reform. He views it as “a proxy war for feelings and attitudes that lie beneath the surface and that are linked to an evident lack of mobility among many Hispanics.” The immigration debate between left and right is a fight over whether America should add another massive lump of unassimilated immigrants into the national mix. Conservatives—largely the white, married middle class whose descendants assimilated generations ago—oppose this. Business interests, racial polarizers, and Democratic pols—who are interested in cheap labor and/or votes—simply do not care about assimilation. In fact, many oppose it, some even outright.
Gonzalez wants to transcend this debate altogether, to render it moot by way of a policy that assimilates Hispanic Americans into the great American nation. He casts a gaze across history and sees how the Scots-Irish, Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews all went from being separate from the mainstream to being inextricably a part of it. And then he asks: Why not Hispanics? His book is about adapting public policy to make this happen for America’s newest arrivals.
This is no small task. In Gonzalez’s telling, the surge of Hispanic immigration began right around the time that the institutions immigrants would need to succeed began to crumble. Just as Hispanics started arriving en masse, the sexual revolution and the Great Society displaced the preeminence of the traditional, two-parent family. This has hurt demographic groups across the board, but it leaves new arrivals particularly vulnerable, because they do not have shared memories of the way things used to be.
Hispanics, moreover, began arriving in large numbers around the time that the civil rights movement was reaching its zenith, inducing a profound shift in government policy. Looking to protect as many minorities as possible, the Johnson administration went so far as to create a term out of whole cloth, “Hispanic” (which Gonzalez grudgingly uses for lack of a better word), to catch a wide variety of peoples—from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, etc.—who often have no real connection to one another. In this way, the federal government impeded the process of assimilation by treating them as a disadvantaged minority, like African Americans, when in fact they were simply new immigrants, as the Irish and Italians once were.
Finally, the traditional role of public schools as the transmitter of shared social values began to degrade: “Gone are the texts,” says Gonzalez, “that once taught all Americans, native or immigrant, how to be an upstanding citizen with the civic knowledge needed to help the republic survive.” White natives can more easily suffer this shift because cultural and social norms are still embedded in their families. But what of Hispanics? They are new to the country, and much more dependent on the school system to learn what it means to be American. In this way, our educational establishment has utterly failed them.
Sitting in the background is the idea that, in important respects, Hispanics have had it worse than previous immigrant groups. The first couple of generations of Irish and Italians certainly faced more hardship and isolation when they arrived, but during this period, they were laying the groundwork for future success. Hispanics came during an era of relative material comfort in America and have been protected by a seemingly beneficent federal government. Those protections, however, have inhibited the development of the social capital necessary to rise into the middle class.