The New Wave

The New Wave of Immigration

life_1501Immigration has increased from a low in the 1930s of less than 500,000 immigrants to over 9 million in the 90s. Where the immigrants were coming from changed, as well, as you can see in the chart below.

Since the Second World War, the Mexican population in the U.S. has more than tripled. Many in this new wave of immigrants have been drawn to jobs in rural areas. The number of immigrants in rural areas is growing faster than urban counties.

The numbers are impressive –

  • In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 54 percent of the nation’s 38.1 million foreign-born people (both legal and illegal) came from Latin America.
  • The next largest percentages were from Asia at 27 percent of the foreign-born, Europe at 13 percent and 4 percent from Africa.
  • According to the Census, immigrants earned less than U.S. citizens – the median household income for the foreign-born was $46,881 in 2007 compared with $51,249 for native-born households.
  • Since the start of the Second World War and the Bracero Program, the number of people born in Mexico legally immigrating to the U.S. is over 16 million. The estimates are that a third as many may be entering the U.S. illegally (according to the Pew Hispanic Center). So, there may be more than 22 million people born in Mexico now living in the U.S. During that same time period 7 million Europeans and 10 million Asians immigrated legally.

The factors that are pushing people out of Mexico to the U.S. are very similar to those that pushed the Europeans out around the turn of the last century, according to Pulitzer prize winning historian David M. Kennedy.

“As in Europe a century ago,” he writes in the Atlantic Monthly, “population explosion has touched off heavy internal migration, from rural to urban areas. By some reckonings, Mexico City has become the largest city in the world, with 20 million inhabitants and an in-migration from the Mexican countryside estimated at 1,000 people a day.” What’s driving former rural residents off the land to the city is the on-going industrialization of agriculture, a legacy of the Mexican Green Revolution.

But when they get to the cities, many migrants can’t find jobs. So, perhaps half of those displaced rural residents cross over the border to the U.S. There is a huge economic pull from the North. Professor Kennedy points out that “the income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world.” Similar factors are at work in other Latin American countries.

film_gouveia_RUNO Professor Lourdes Gouveia (left) says it is not the poorest of the poor who can put together the resources to migrate to another country. “It’s often those families who have been exposed to the possibility of higher expectations for their children’s education” who come, she says. But this new wave of immigrants may discover a new life that is full of daunting challenges, particularly in rural communities.

“Close your eyes and imagine that you open your eyes and you find yourself in a town where nobody knows you, and [you’re on] a street that is not your street, and you’re trying to speak a language that nobody understands, trying to understand rules that have nothing to do with the place you left behind. So, it’s an accommodation that initially is hard for both those who are coming in and those who are old residents, who are encountering this large influx.”

film_lee_LUniversity of Nebraska-Lincoln Agronomy Professor Don Lee (right) says his rural students are experiencing changes in their small towns. “The biggest change that my students are experiencing, who are from rural areas, has been immigration,” he says. “I never personally hear them make racial comments. They would rather not say anything. Now, how they might interact with people they’re more comfortable with might be very different. What I do sense is there is tension. And any time people are asked to change, it’s tough.”

Accommodating these new immigrants raises questions of assimilation, language, education and culture. We’ll explore those issues next.



Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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