America's Immigrant Boom

March 12, 1991

Census Bureau figures just released show how much the nation's demographics changed in the decade just ending. The "minority" population rose dramatically. In 1990, white Americans of European ancestry were still the nation's dominant group, but at about 75 percent of the nation's population, down considerably from 10 years ago, when that figure was a little over 80 percent. In decades past the proportion was in the high 80s.

The big change in the 1980s was brought about by immigration from Asia and Latin America. About 85 percent of all immigration in the decade came from those two regions. That resembles the pre-World War I immigration boom decades, when some 90 percent of all immigration was from Europe. The 1980s resemble that period also in the size of the immigration wave. Census officials say there were 8 million immigrants during the decade. Only in the 1901-1910 period were there more -- 8.8 million. Over a third of the nation's total population growth in the 1980s was due to immigration. That is the highest proportion since the 1920s.

The changes in numbers and percentages inevitably mean changes in social, intellectual and political life. Some Americans are fearful or resentful of this. One argument is that the "melting pot" tradition is threatened, especially by those who want to keep their old languages and customs. Critics says there could be a U.S. equivalent of Quebec in Florida or California, where a population so isolated and different saw secession as a desirable political goal.

That is unlikely. The twin American traditions of inclusiveness and adaptation have overcome this threat for well over a century. Large communities of immigrant Irish, of Germans, of Poles, of Eastern European Jews, of Italians, among others, kept their language and customs alive in isolation and near-segregation from the dominant British-stock population for years, but gradually "melted" into the "pot," changing -- and enriching -- themselves and the American stew in the process.

As Oscar Handlin, a leading student of the American immigrant experience, wrote some 40 years ago about those earlier waves of newcomers, "immigrants [who] did not know in advance what they sought in the New World, other than a refuge from the Old. . . learned to recognize the worth of what they found."

Regardless of their numbers, Asians and Hispanics will do the same.


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