On February 27, 2013, Houston Arts Alliance held a public discussion titled "Houston's Immigrant Advantage," which featured sociologist Dr. Stephen Klineberg and author Claudia Kolker. The program received grant support from Humanities Texas.
Klineberg's remarks, excerpted below, drew from the extensive data gathered by his thirty-year sociological study of the city and what it tells us not only about Houston's changing demographics but also the changing character of immigrant communities across the nation. The city of Houston provides a case study for the transformative impact of the Great Society's 1965 Immigration Reform Act. Klineberg is professor of sociology and codirector of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, where he has taught since 1972.
Houston experienced a major economic downturn with the collapse of the oil boom in 1982, the worst regional recession in any part of the country at any time since World War II. The region recovered into a restructured economy and a demographic revolution. The restructured economy has meant growing inequalities in what is now a fully global, high-tech economy: companies can produce goods anywhere and sell them everywhere. The result is increasing inequality in Houston and across America, predicated above all else on access to quality education. Education is now the critical determinant of a person's ability to earn enough money to support a family. Houston's future success will depend on its ability to become a place that nurtures, attracts, and retains the best and the brightest people in America.
The other fundamental shift in our era is in the composition of the Houston, the Texas, and the American populations. Between 1492 and 1965, 82 percent of all the human beings who came to American shores came from Europe. Another 12 percent were Africans originally brought here as slaves to serve the Europeans. There were a handful of Chinese and Japanese farmers and laborers in California and Hawaii. This nation was an amalgam of European nationalities, deliberately so. It was operating during the last forty years of that period under one of the most viciously racist laws the U.S. Congress ever passed—the "National Origins Quota Act," which came out of the great anti-immigrant, racist backlash that accompanied the last great wave of immigration, when 15.9 million immigrants came to America between 1890 and 1914. These immigrants weren't coming from the place where "real Americans" were supposed to come—Northern Europe; they were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. They weren't Protestants; they were Catholics and Jews. So in 1924, Congress enacted [the Johnson-Reed Act], which said, "Alright, from now on, you can come to this country in direct proportion to which your ethnicity and nationality was represented in the census of 1890." This gave major preference to Northern Europeans. The law also codified the "Chinese Exclusion Act" in California of 1882, and the "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Japan of 1907, so that Asians were banned entirely from coming to America.
After the law was enacted in 1924, 98 percent of all the immigrants who came here came from Europe—88 percent from Northern Europe, just as the act intended. The law obviously could not survive the shifts of consciousness with the civil rights movements, the competition with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of third-world countries, and above all, Kennedy's assassination. Kennedy wrote a powerful book about immigrant America [A Nation of Immigrants] and fought against the restrictive immigration laws. In 1965, Congress changed the law. They said, "Well, we used to be a racist nation. We're not racist anymore. We're going to give every country recognized by the UN twenty thousand visas a year, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality. But we'll continue the hallmark of American immigration policy, which is family reunification. If you're the father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter of an American citizen, you can come to the head of the line. Therefore," said Congress, "not to worry, we're going to give preference to people who are related to those who are already here. Nothing will change; we're just going to get rid of this racist law that has been on the books for so many years." Then it added another provision that said, "Well, if you're a professional of exceptional ability, or if you have skills that are demonstrably needed and in short supply, you too can come to the head of the line."
In its debates in the 1950s, Congress was saying, "We need to open the door for some more British doctors, some more German engineers." It never occurred to anyone that there were going to be African doctors, Indian engineers, Chinese computer programmers, who would be able for the first time in the twentieth century to come to America. The law was changed in 1965, and the world changed. During the 1960s, about 3.5 million immigrants came; only 38 percent were from Europe. In the 1970s about five million came; only 18 percent were Europeans. Almost 88 percent of all immigration to America since the law was changed in 1965 has come from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. The United States—which throughout all of our history had been an amalgam of European nationalities—is becoming a microcosm of the world, the first nation in history that can say, "We are a free people, and we come from everywhere." It's a remarkable change. It is happening at the same moment as the American economy is becoming fully integrated in a single global economic system: America, now a microcosm of the world.
No city has been transformed as fully, as completely, as suddenly, as irreversibly, as Houston, Texas. Houston throughout all of our history was basically a biracial, southern city, dominated and controlled in an automatic, taken-for-granted way by white men. In the space of the last thirty years it has become the single most ethnically diverse major metropolitan area in the country.
In the biracial world of the 1960 census, there were 1.2 million people living in Harris County, Texas; 74 percent were Anglos, 20 percent African Americans, just 6 percent Hispanics, and less than one half of one percent were Asians. During the oil boom years of the ‘60s and ‘70s it was Anglos pouring into Houston because this is where the jobs were. By 1980, Houston had become the fourth largest city in America. It was still an overwhelmingly Anglo city—63 percent Anglo, 20 percent African American, now 16 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian. The Anglo population during the oil boom years of the 1970s grew by 28 percent. Then came the oil bust. Between 1980 and 1990, the Anglo population grew by one percent. Between 1990 and 2000 the Anglo population of Harris County actually dropped by 6.3 percent. It dropped again by 5.2 percent by 2010.
Meanwhile, the African American population grew, fueled by African immigration and the return of middle-class African Americans from northern cities to southern cities, Atlanta first, Houston second. The African American population grew by about 20 percent per decade, keeping pace with the overall population growth of the county. The Latino population grew by 74 percent in the 1990s and by 43 percent in the 2000s. The Asian population grew even faster, by 76 percent and by 49 percent. By 2010 Harris County was 41 percent Latino, 33 percent Anglo, 18 percent African American, and 8 percent Asian. By that measure, this is the most ethnically diverse major city in the country. We beat New York in terms of coming as close as you can to having equal representation among the four great communities of America. This is where the four communities meet, in greater balance, greater equality, all of us minorities, all of us called on to build something new under the sun—a truly successful, inclusive, equitable, and united multiethnic society that will be Houston and Texas and America in the twenty-first century. The census announced that by 2040 to 2045 the majority of Americans across the country will trace their ancestry to somewhere else on this planet than Europe. The American future is here in Houston now. How we navigate this transition will have enormous significance not just for the Houston future, but for the American future. This is where the American future is going to be worked out.
Just think where we would have been had Houston not been one of the magnets for the new immigration of the last thirty years. Houston would have lost population. We would have had the same fate as other major American cities that are losing their status as major cities: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo. Instead, Houston is one of the most vibrant, rapidly growing cities in America with a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit—the last city to go into the recession, the first one to come out, one of the strongest economies in the country, largely because of the tremendous energy, vitality, and commitment to hard work of immigrants pouring into this city from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. No city has benefited more from immigration than Houston, Texas. It's ironic, but not surprising, to find anti-immigrant attitudes in Houston as elsewhere, when you think about the very different story we would be telling about Houston had we been like Philadelphia, a great city that for one reason or another, never attracted immigrants the way Houston has.
It's not only numbers, of course, it's also ages. Anglos are overwhelmingly overrepresented among the baby boom generation because they were the ones to have been born here between 1946 and 1964. It was not until 1965, after the baby boom ended, that non-Europeans were allowed in any meaningful numbers to come to America. So the young people across America are disproportionately non-Anglos. The older folks are disproportionately Anglo. Nowhere is that clearer than in Houston. Of all the residents of Harris County, Texas, who are sixty-five years old or older, 57 percent are Anglos, 19 percent Latinos, 17 percent African American, 7 percent Asian. As you get to younger ages, the proportion of Anglos plummets, and the proportion of Latinos surges. Over half the children under eighteen in Harris County are Latino, and less than a quarter are Anglos. No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more Latino, more African American, and more Asian in the years ahead.
The question for our generation is, how do we make this work? How do we draw on this extraordinary sort of gift but also challenge that we've been given—to build a truly successful multi-ethnic society that will be Houston and all of America as the twenty-first century unfolds? There's a big difference in educational attainment. One group of immigrants, largely Asian, is coming with extraordinary credentials: 59 percent of all Asian immigrants have college degrees, compared to just 37 percent of Anglos. African immigrants, largely Nigerians, are also coming here as London-trained doctors and engineers. Why are Asians and Africans coming with such extraordinary credentials? Because the main mechanism to get here, once the law was changed in 1965, was family reunification, and there were no families for any African or Asian to reunify with. They had been banned for the entire twentieth century from coming to America. The only way to get here was to qualify as a professional of exceptional ability—as in the case of Indian doctors or Chinese engineers, or in the case of Filipino nurses, having skills that were demonstrably needed and in short supply.
Why did people immigrate? The Vietnamese overwhelmingly said they came because of war and politics or in search of freedom. The Filipinos overwhelmingly came for jobs. Many were trained in American-based nursing schools in the Philippines. The Chinese and Indians came primarily for a combination of economic reasons and education.
Here's another variation, based on religion: We have become in this city, not just a microcosm of the world's people, but also a microcosm of the world's religions. In our surveys since the 1980s, we found a tripling in the number of Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus in Houston. Filipinos are overwhelmingly Catholic, Indians are split between being Hindu or Muslim, the Vietnamese are either Catholics or Buddhists, and the Chinese are Protestant, but also the most likely to claim no religious affiliation. This is yet another reminder of the great variety and richness of these communities.
Three-fourths of all Latinos still come from Mexico. The next largest country of origin is, of course, El Salvador. Thirteen percent of Latinos come from El Salvador and 8 percent from other Central American countries. The majority of Latinos from Central America and Mexico are coming with very low levels of education: 54 percent do not have high school degrees. The Cubans and South Americans come with much higher educational credentials, and even more educated are the Latinos coming from elsewhere in the world, especially from Europe. So it's again a reminder of the great variety of the new immigrants, but that picture of so many Latinos coming here with such low levels of education is what creates the anxiety in this country.
We have now reached a large enough number of Latino immigrants that we can ask the question: What happens to Latino immigrants that have been in the United States for nine years or less, compared to those who have been here for ten to nineteen years, compared to Latino immigrants who have been in America for twenty years or longer; and then compare those three immigrant groups with second-generation Latinos, born in the United States of immigrant parents, and the third generation, born in America of parents who were also born in the United States. You discover, across the board, that Latino immigrants coming to America with low levels of education are nevertheless working their way out of poverty at least as fast as the Italians and the Greeks and the Poles did a hundred years ago, when the same fears were being expressed about the inhabitants of "Little Italy" who were "never learning English" and "never going to succeed."
Latino immigrant families are also learning English at least as fast as the Italians and the Greeks and the Poles did. And a fact I often remind people of: Everybody on this planet is learning English. It is the language of upward mobility and of the global economy. There are more Chinese in China today studying English than there are Americans in the United States studying English. I tell Anglos, if we were smart, we wouldn't be saying, "How come they're not learning English?" We'd be asking, "How come my Anglo kid isn't learning Spanish or Chinese, the two languages that will open the doors to the global marketplace?" We Americans are generally the only actors on the world scene who speak only one language, who know only one culture, and that is not an advantage in the global economy of the twenty-first century.
We have become a city and a nation of immigrants again, after fifty years of virtually no immigration. Houston's destiny is to be a world center for trade and commerce in the global economy of the twenty-first century. It's going to be an enormous advantage for Houston to have in positions of economic and political power black Houstonians, Hispanic Houstonians, Asian Houstonians, to build the bridges to the global marketplace. This ethnic transformation can be the greatest asset that Houston could have, or it could tear us apart and become a major liability, reducing rather than enhancing our competitiveness, setting the stage for serious social conflict, by a failure to build the educational structures that are going to be needed to ensure that our children, especially African American and Latino kids, are prepared to succeed in the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century.
How we respond in this generation will determine the kind of future that Houston will have in the new century. No one planned for the oil boom to collapse, for us to recover into a new kind of economy where education has become so important. No one planned for the demographic transformation to take place. These are the cards that this generation has been dealt. How we play those cards will determine the kind of city, the kind of state, the kind of country that we build together in the twenty-first century.
Stephen L. Klineberg of Rice University and journalist Claudia Kolker speak at "Houston's Immigrant Advantage," a public program organized by the Houston Arts Alliance and the Asia Society.