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Hidden Hispanic middle class

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POSTED: September 13, 2007 5:04 a.m.
The bruising battle over immigration reform didn’t result in immigration reform. But the tons of ink spilled to cover it — yours truly’s included — ended up reinforcing the image of the newly arrived immigrant who cuts the lawn for a handful of dollars.
And it’s not just the coverage. Heck, even in towns without a distinctive Hispanic presence a couple of years ago, there are now so many newly arrived immigrants who cut the lawn for a handful of dollars that they reinforce the image of the newly arrived immigrant who cuts the lawn for a handful of dollars.
Which would be fine if it didn’t obscure the growth of a Hispanic middle class.
Nobody needs to be convinced there are a lot of Hispanics who do menial jobs for low pay and have not lived in the United States very long, legally or otherwise. It is a real segment of the overall Hispanic community in this country.
But it is not the largest segment, or the fastest growing, or the most representative of trends in Hispanic communities.
For one thing, illegal entries are slowing, despite doomsday predictions from the Lou Dobbses of the world. The number of illegal arrivals grew from 975,105 in 1990 to 1,516,388 10 years later, according to University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers, but dropped to 1,443,604 by 2005.
Meanwhile, the number of Hispanics who earn at least $100,000 and have a minimum of $500,000 in assets is growing eight times faster than the number of non-Hispanics with the same economic profile, according to a report late in July from the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, based at USC. The 3.7 million Hispanic households in this group are split evenly between U.S-born and foreign-born.
It’s an entrepreneurial bunch. The study cites an estimate from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that there are 2 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States, with revenues of $350 billion annually. By 2010, the Chamber expects there will be 3.2 million businesses, generating $465 billion.
“The very existence of the Hispanic middle and upper classes has gone unnoticed in mainstream society, with their image remaining as a poor immigrant group,” the report says.
In other words, the large number of new immigrants diverts attention from the big picture. The percentage of Hispanics who are poor may have increased because of the number of newcomers — but the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived a generation or more ago are joining the American middle class.
I don’t doubt it’s a demographic trend that is hard to see. It’s much easier for conservatives to point accusatory fingers at hardworking but low-wage new immigrants and proclaim it is Hispanic America. And much easier for liberals to take those low-income figures and go off in a corner to cry virtuous victimhood.
The growth of the Hispanic middle class is a story inconvenient to left and right. But not to the growing Hispanic middle class.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His latest book is “Cubans in America” (Kensington).
 

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