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The Immigrant Gang Plague (Part 2)
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Mexican and Central American immigration to New York City is of much more recent vintage than in California, but young Mexicans in New York have quickly assimilated to underclass sexual behavior. Nineteen-year-old Ernesto Vega reports that his oldest sister dropped out of school at 17 and got pregnant the next year. I heard her boyfriend came from Mexico to work, but he wasn't working. He was on the street. Ernesto says. Then the boyfriend got arrested, probably on drug charges. He says he was arrested for doing nothing, but they don't arrest you for doing nothing.

Ernesto knows three or four Mexican-American girls with babies, including a 16-year-old with two daughters. Another just got pregnant this year, he says. She's 15. None is married. None has a GED or will go to college. As for the fathers of their children? The boys be leaving the girls alone, Vega says. The boy goes away.

Some Hispanic parents valiantly try to impose old-fashioned consequences on teen pregnancies, but they are losing the battle. Vega's father, a building superintendent and hardware store clerk, angrily told his pregnant daughter, according to Vega: You gotta go live with [the boyfriend]. I now want nothing to do with you! The boyfriend offered to take the girl into the apartment he was sharing with a female acquaintance, but she wanted her own place. Eventually, she persuaded her father to take her back, but only on the condition that she work. She now sells Yankee paraphernalia on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Traditional and contemporary family values continued to clash throughout the pregnancy. Although the boyfriend vanished until the birth, he showed up at Vega's house with his whole family when the girl returned from the hospital with her newborn. He took his three sisters and his mother; one sister took the nephews. Vega recalls. The boyfriend's demand: you have to decide where to live. The girl told him to take a hike. The family delegation, Vega judges, already adapting to American individualist norms, was inappropriate. The problem was not with the families, he says, but between him and her.

In one respect, Central American immigrants break the mold of traditional American underclass behavior: they work. Even so, Mexican welfare receipt is twice as high as that of natives, in large part because Mexican-American incomes are so low, and remain low over successive generations. Disturbingly, welfare use actually rises between the second and third generation to 31 percent of all third-generation Mexican-American households. Illegal Hispanics make liberal use of welfare, too, by putting their American-born children on public assistance: in Orange County, California, nearly twice as many Hispanic welfare cases are for children of illegal aliens as for legal families.

More troublingly, some Hispanics combine work with gangbanging. Gang detectives in Long Island's Suffolk County know when members of the violent Salvadoran MS-13 gang get off work from their lawn-maintenance or pizzeria jobs, and can follow them to their gang meetings. Mexican gang members in rural Pennsylvania, which saw two gang homicides in late April, also often work in landscaping and construction.

On the final component of underclass behavior school failure. Hispanics are in a class by themselves. No other group drops out in greater numbers. In Los Angeles, only 48 percent of Hispanic ninth-graders graduate, compared with a 56 percent citywide graduation rate and a 70 percent nationwide rate. In 2000, nearly 30 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24 were high school dropouts nationwide, compared with about 13 percent of blacks and about 7 percent of whites.

The constant inflow of barely literate recent Mexican arrivals unquestionably brings down Hispanic education levels. But later American-born generations don't brighten the picture much. While Mexican-Americans make significant education gains between the first and second generation, adding 3.5 years of schooling, progress stalls in the next generation, economists Jeffrey Grogger and Stephen Trejo have found. Third-generation Mexican-Americans remain three times as likely to drop out of high school than whites and one and a half times as likely to drop out as blacks. They complete college at one-third the rate of whites. Mexican-Americans are assimilating not to the national schooling average, observed the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas this June, but to the dramatically lower Hispanic average. In educational outcomes, concluded the bank, Ethnicity matters.

No one knows why this is so. Every parent I spoke to said that she wanted her children to do well in school and go to college. Yet the message is often not getting across. Hispanic parents are the kind of parents that leave it to others, explains an unwed Salvadoran welfare mother in Santa Ana. We don't get that involved.A news director of a Southern California Spanish radio station expresses frustration at the passivity toward education and upward mobility he sees in his own family. I tried to knock the Spanglish accent out of my niece and get rid of that crap, he says. But the mother was completely nihilistic about her child. It's going to take direct action from Americans to Americanize Hispanics.

Perhaps the answer to the disconnect between stated parental goals and educational outcomes lies in Hispanic culture's traditional suspicion of education. Santa Ana police officer Mona Ruiz recounts a joke told by comedian George Lopez: When a white person graduates, people say, You did good.When a Mexican graduates, people say, You think you're better than us. The lure of an immediate income often proves more compelling than a four- to eight-year investment in self-improvement. New Yorker Ernesto Vega says he knows Mexicans with papers who drop out of high school. They young. They say, I'm going to start working, I don't need school.But Vega has no illusions about the consequences: Even with papers, you're only making $300 a week as a delivery boy in restaurants, because you don't know anything else.

Proponents of unregulated immigration simply ignore the growing underclass problem among later generations of Hispanics, with its attendant gang involvement and teen pregnancy. When pressed, open-borders advocates dismiss worries about the Hispanic future with their favorite comparison between Mexicans and Italians. Popularized by political analyst Michael Barone in The New Americans, the analogy goes like this: a century ago, Italian immigrants anticipated the Mexican influx, above all in their disregard for education. They dropped out of school in high numbers yet they eventually prospered and joined the mainstream. Therefore, argue Barone and others, Mexicans will, too.

But the analogy is flawed. To begin with, the magnitude of Mexican immigration renders all historical comparisons irrelevant, as Harvard historian Samuel Huntington argues in his latest book, Who Are We?. In 2000, Mexicans constituted nearly 30 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S.; the next two largest groups were the Chinese (5 percent) and Filipinos (4 percent). By contrast, at the turn of the twentieth century, the largest immigrant group, Germans, made up only 15 percent of the foreign-born population. In 1910, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, and Italy, in that order, sent the most migrants to the U.S.; Italians made up only 17 percent of the combined total. English-speakers made up over half the new arrivals; there was no chance that Italian would become the dominant language in any part of the country. By contrast, half of today’s immigrants speak Spanish.

Equally important, the flow of newcomers came to an abrupt halt after World War I and did not resume until 1965. This long pause allowed the country ample opportunity to Americanize the foreign-born and their children. Today, no end is in sight to the migration from Mexico and its neighbors, which continually reinforces Mexican culture in American Hispanic communities and seems likely to do so for decades into the future.

Contemporary Hispanic immigration also differs from the classic Ellis Island model in that the ease of cross-border travel and communication allows Mexican and Central American immigrants to keep at least one foot planted in their native land. Meanwhile, the Mexican government does everything it can to bind Mexican migrants psychologically to the home country, in order to safeguard the annual $12 billion flow of remittances. It encourages dual nationality, and Mexicans in the U.S. can now run for office in Mexico. A Yolo County, California, tomato farmer has already been elected mayor of Jerez. Not surprisingly, Mexicans and other Central Americans have the lowest rates of naturalization of all immigrants less than 30 percent in 1990, compared with two-thirds of qualified immigrants from major European sending countries, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.

Even Mexico's former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, acknowledges the unprecedented character of Hispanic immigration. Mexican immigration, he wrote recently, does have distinctive traits that do make [assimilation] difficult, if not impossible. This is . . . a matter of history. That history holds that the U.S. robbed Mexico of its natural territory in the nineteenth century, as some Mexican immigrants never seem to forget. It's kind of scary, says Santa Ana gang intervention officer Mona Ruiz. I hear, I was here first; this used to be Mexico. You stole it from us. Mexican-American Ruiz is herself called a traitor for becoming Americanized.

While proponents of the reconquista of Alta California (as Mexican nationalists call the lost territory) are a small minority of Hispanic immigrants, a much larger proportion hold on to their Hispanic identities. Few of the American-born students I spoke to in Southern California identified themselves as American. Many said they were Mexican,& Latino,or Mexican-American usages encouraged by the multicultural dogma in the schools, a far cry from the Americanization efforts of classrooms a century ago.

Michael Barone's Italian-Mexican comparison also ignores the differences between the U.S. economies of 1904 and 2004. While Italian dropouts in 1904 could make their way into the middle class by working in the booming manufacturing sector or plying their existing craftsman skills, that is far more difficult today, given the decline of factory jobs and the rise of the knowledge-based economy. As the limited education of Mexican-Americans depresses their wages, their sense of being stuck in an economic backwater breeds resentment. The second generation becomes angry with America, as they see their fathers faltering, observes Cesar Barrios, an outreach worker for the Tepeyac Association, a social services agency for Mexicans in New York City. This resentment only increases the lure of underclass culture, with its rebellious rejection of conventional norms, according to Barrios. For this reason, he says, many young Mexicans prefer to imitate blacks than white people.

The Spanish-language media, which reaches two-thirds of all Hispanics, reinforces the sense of grievance. Stories about America's cruelties to immigrants and the country's shocking failure to legalize illegal aliens dominate news coverage. A billboard for Los Angeles's Spanish newspaper La Opinión conveys the usual tone: Justice, Abuse Deportation, and other hot-button topics blare out in massive lettering.

Chicago provides a cautionary tale about high levels of Hispanic immigration combined with an ever more powerful underclass ethic. During the 1990s, the Hispanic population in Chicago grew 38 percent, to 754,000, and became increasingly concentrated in the city's barrios. Education levels and fluency in English dropped lower and lower, while serious crime, social disorder, and physical decay grew in direct proportion to the number of Spanish-speaking Latinos. After a neighborhood became more than 60 percent Latino, physical decay including graffiti, trash-filled vacant lots, and abandoned cars jumped disproportionately. By 2001, social pathology among Spanish-speaking Latinos was higher than for any other racial or ethnic group.

There are many counterexamples that show a salutary effect of Hispanic immigration. Santa Ana, California, at 76 percent Latino the most heavily Spanish-speaking city of its size in the country, has cleaned up the seedy bars from its downtown area and replaced them with palm trees and benches, in large part thanks to a newly created business improvement district. Many homes in Santa Ana's wealthier Mexican neighborhoods sport exuberant roses and bougainvillea in their front yards, and students I spoke to there wanted to become lawyers, architects, and medical technicians. In predominantly Mexican East Los Angeles, housing prices are soaring along with the rest of the Southern California housing market: a 1928 two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow with a lawn gone to seed was listed at $265,000 this April. And in increasingly Hispanic South Central L.A., tiny bodegas selling milk, diapers, and piñatas are replacing liquor stores.

Yet a seemingly innocuous block in Santa Ana can host five to eight households dedicated to gangbanging or drug sales. A front yard may be relatively trash-free; inside the house, a different matter entirely, says Santa Ana cop Kevin Ruiz. I've been to three houses just this week where they made a mountain of trash in the backyard or changed their baby's diaper by throwing it over the couch. They don't use the indoor plumbing, while letting their dogs go to the bathroom on the carpet. Ruiz drives by the modest tract home where his Mexican father, who worked in Orange County's farming industry, raised him in the 1950s. A car with a shattered windshield, a trailer, and minivan sit in the backyard, surrounded by piles of junk and a mattress leaning on the garage door. My mom taught us that even if you're poor, you should be neat, he says, shaking his head. Fifty-year-old men are still dressing like chollos (Chicano gangsters), Ruiz says, and fathers are ordering barbers to shave their young sons bald in good gang tradition.

Without prompting, Ruiz brings up the million-dollar question: I don't see assimilation, he says. They want to hold on [to Hispanic culture]. Ruiz thinks that today's Mexican immigrant is a totally different kind of person from the past. Some come with a chip on their shoulder toward the United States, he says, which they blame for the political and economic failure of their home countries. Rather than aggressively seizing the opportunities available to them, especially in education, they have learned to play the victim card, he thinks. Ruiz advocates a much more aggressive approach. We need to explain, I'll help you assimilate up to a certain point, but then you have to take advantage of what's here.

Ruiz's observations will strike anyone who has hired eager Mexican and Central American workers as incredible. I pressed him repeatedly, insisting that Americans see Mexican immigrants as cheerful and hardworking, but he was adamant. We're creating an underclass, he maintained.

Immigration optimists, ever ready to trumpet the benefits of today's immigration wave, have refused to acknowledge its costs. Foremost among them are skyrocketing gang crime and an expanding underclass. Until the country figures out how to reduce these costs, maintaining the current open-borders regime is folly. We should enforce our immigration laws and select immigrants on skills and likely upward mobility, not success in sneaking across the border.

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