Event Summary: ‘Anxiety, Fear, and National Identity: Anti-Immigration Politics and the Rise of Hispanics in the U.S.’


On Monday 13th March the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to welcome Dr Neil Foley, of the Southern Methodist University, Texas, to give a presentation on Hispanic immigration in the US, entitled “Anxiety, Fear, and National Identity: Anti-Immigration politics and the Rise of Hispanics in the US”. It covered the changing racial face of America and how the dominant white majority is reacting to this huge and unstoppable transformation.

The discussion began with Foley describing his own views and the population trends demographers have identified that have started the immigration debate. As the descendent of Irish and Mexican immigrations (both sides of which he cheekily remarks he is unsure of whether they came to the US legally) Foley is unashamedly pro-immigration. He argued that there “is nothing wrong with perspective as long as you have evidence to back it up”. He points to the consensus among anthropologists that by the middle of this century whites will no longer be the majority race in the United States. “Immigrants have been the driving force behind changing demographics for the last fifty years”. However, as he would explain later, it is now birth-rates which are at the epicentre of the demographic shift.

Dr Foley says that “it’s a frightening prospect for many whites to think of themselves as a minority population”. He contends that many Americans have a cultural fear of other societies and this fear is embedded in the very fabric and creation of the nation. The Founding fathers all had their faults. Many owned slaves, and Benjamin Franklin was quite strict in his view that only Anglos Saxons, not even other whites, should be allowed to settle and claim citizenship in America. The first Congress in 1790 limited citizenship rights to “free white person” which prevented all but Anglo-Saxons from claiming citizenship. Dr Foley said that he was by no means judging 18th century beliefs by 21st century standards, but he contended that in order for politicians, academics and people to grasp the problems that America has with race, you have to go back to the very founding of the nation.

White America today has its concerns rooted in the question of what will America be like in the future. When Anglo Protestant values could no longer be the “touchstone” of what it means to be an American. “Many Americans fear that immigrants do not assimilate into US culture”. This is exemplified by the fact that this viewpoint is not only shared by working class whites, but also academics. In his book, Who Are We? The late Harvard scholar, Samuel Huntingdon, argued that Hispanic immigrants create their own “country in a country” by forming cultural enclaves in American society through Spanish media, food, and living in closed-off communities. Dr Foley points out, however, that “Mexicans have been assimilating into US culture since the Mexican War” and this exact same phenomenon happened when Italians, Irish, Poles and Germans immigrated to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually, 2nd and 3rd generation immigrations had little-to-no connection with their ancestral homeland. They spread throughout the states, did not learn their grandparents’ mother tongue and feel as patriotic as their Anglo-Protestant counterparts.

After the thorough background information, Dr Foley then moved on to present how the great demographic change started and when people started to take the transition seriously. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the quota system and allowed people to join their family members already in the US. At the time, Hispanics were only 4% of the US population. The immigration act created such a huge growth in the immigrant population that the 1980s were dubbed the “decade of the Hispanic” as businesses saw potential in a large new consumer base. By the 1990s, Time Magazine was publishing copies with the front page reading “The Browning of America”.


Dr Foley states that it was in the 1990s and early 2000s that, once peripheral to the political debate, anti-Hispanic views started to become the mainstream. Samuel Huntington published his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity in 2004, and other commentators such as Ann Coulter rose to prominence on the back of American nationalism. The Republican Party also increased its hard-line immigration policy with more politicians calling for tougher immigration controls, increased border security and making English the official language of the US in order to promote a cultural hegemony.

So far their efforts have been unable to stop the tide of change. In 1980 the population of Latinos in the US stood at 6%; by 2050 it is projected to be 29%. In 1960 the percentage of immigrant arrivals that hailed from Mexico was only 5.9% of the total arrivals. By 1990 this figure had risen to 22%. Dr Foley points to these figures to demonstrate how the abolishment of immigration quotas, thus removing race from the equation, started a chain reaction of population change. Conversely, as the Hispanic population is set to continue to exponentially rise, the proportion of immigration from Mexico has stabilised at around 29% (29.5% in 2000 and 29.3% in 2010). As Mexicans make up two-thirds of the US Hispanic population there must be another source for this growth.

Dr Foley maintains that “most of the growth of the Hispanic population after 2010 is birth, not immigration”. In the US on average White and Asian women are having less children than the 2.1 average required for a natural replacement rate (both races producing 1.8 children per woman). On the other hand, Hispanic women are having on average 2.4 children; this is even higher than the Mexican average which stands at 2.2. This is because Mexico is a fast developing state and when you have development you get a declining birth-rate as a result of “urbanisation, women in the workforce and contraception”. Mexico’s birth-rate is plummeting and, as their GDP rises, many Mexicans find themselves with a higher standard of living. This means that there is little to no need for them to emigrate to find better opportunities if there are plenty at home.

Whites are already the minority in states like California, Texas and New Mexico. Today 62% of the population is white; 25 years ago 84% were white. Hispanics are even settling in places that were historically never under Spanish or Mexican control. Foley points to a significant number of Hispanics that now reside in places like South Carolina, Hawaii and even Alaska. These states saw a significant increase, as did the rest of the country, in the Hispanic population from the two decades following 1990. Hispanics are becoming more than migrants to the US, they are becoming embedded into US society. By migrating throughout the US states, Hispanics are increasingly venturing out from mostly Hispanic US neighbourhoods, just like the Irish and Italians before them. As a result they are more a part of US culture, tradition and society than ever before. The US has never been as far away from its white dominated Anglo-Protestant roots than it is now.

Dr Foley’s concluding remarks concentrated on how race in general has played such an important part in US politics. “Immigration is now at the core of American politics, as it was in the 19th century and the 1920s”. What we have been witnessing for the past couple of decades is in a sense a “white backlash”, mainly from the working class, who have recently seen their factories close, their incomes shrink and their neighbourhoods change. Many right-wing political commentators and politicians have latched onto this fear and used it for their own means. Commentators like Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter have written books with titles like The Death of the West and Adios America which both feed on the anxiety of white America and exploits it. There all also politicians, most notably of course Donald Trump, who have used race as a platform to enter office. Even John McCain in 2008 had the slogan “complete the danged fence”.


Many whites feel that the elites are ignoring their needs in favour of protecting the rights of minorities. Gains for immigrants are seen as losses for whites, who have been financially squeezed in recent decades. As the overly-white middle class continues to shrink as a result of the pressures of globalisation and other economic factors, some whites are laying the blame with immigrants and the political elites who appear to be ignoring their needs.

As the racial face and culture of the US continues to change, many are wondering: what exactly is America?


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