The United States has been a nation of immigrants from the very start. The country has prided itself on being a "melting pot" wherein people of different backgrounds have come together to create a unique society. Eighteenth century immigrant waves into the original English colonies were dominated by English, Irish, Scot, and Germanic peoples and English became the dominant language. During the nineteenth century, large numbers of African people were forcibly imported into the country and the United States expanded rapidly across the continent displacing remnant Native American groups and engulfing enormous areas of land sparsely populated by Hispanic people. Large numbers of Asian workers were brought in to supplement the labor force as roads and railroads spanned the country and large scale agriculture was developed. During the twentieth century, people immigrated to the United States from virtually every part of the world. These later immigrant groups were small when compared to the society as a whole and by-in-large were absorbed into the dominant culture within a generation or two.
It must be remembered that during the entire history of the United States there has been and continues to be friction between ethnic groups. Not surprisingly, immigrant groups have consistently imported old world prejudices and grudges into the new society. In the middle of the nineteenth century those issues contributed to the bloodiest war in the country's history - before or since. Although, on occasion, this friction has flared into violence, overall the dominant culture has managed to suppress and/or contain the disagreements between racial and cultural groups sufficiently to maintain a rough equilibrium. When a large number of immigrants from another culture first entered the United States there has always been a period of adjustment. Depending on the size of the immigrant group the resultant political problems were local, regional, or national. In the 1970s legal immigrants from Vietnam attempting to establish themselves in the fishing business along the coast of Texas generated severe inter-personal friction, but their problems barely registered on the regional or national scene. Today, large numbers of illegal Hispanic immigrants cause comparatively few inter-personal problems, but are a major issue in national, regional, and some local political scenes.
Illegal immigration has been a fact of life in the United States throughout its history. From the time that the original colonies were established into the twentieth century there was a perceived need for population. Able-bodied workers, people with expertise in the trades, people with advanced education, and people with financial resources, were welcomed with open arms. It was relatively easy to immigrate legally into the country and there was little need to resort to the illegal path. Today it is much harder to get into the country legally and large numbers of people are entering without going through established procedures. These illegal immigrants are readily finding work in the United States during a period of relatively full employment and so it would appear that there is still a felt need for able-bodied workers in the country. The preponderance of the illegals are finding jobs in the service industry and lower rungs of the trades. The majority of these illegal immigrants are of "Hispanic" origin - a term that attempts to describe an enormous cultural and racial melange of humanity from the Iberian peninsula to the tip of Tierra del Fuego.
Today, debates are raging at the national, regional, and local levels as to the impact of illegal immigration. The effectiveness of legal procedures and border security systems are understandably being questioned. The economic strain on social services is worrisome to many. Some are fearful that the "melting pot" will not work as well as previously because of Mexico's immediate border with the southwestern states. An argument is being made that the Mexican worker does not really want to become part of the dominant Anglo culture in the United States. It is said that this irredentist population retains primary allegiance to family and friends in Mexico just across the border. This argument is intensified when some political activists on both sides of the border suggest that the southwestern states rightfully belong to Mexico. Some political leaders within the United States are calling for the immediate deportation of millions of people while others, concerned about the human hardship that would ensue, plead for amnesty. Current immigration debates regarding Hispanic workers are reminiscent of those that raged earlier with regard to Chinese workers living in the western states.
As one looks into the future it is inevitable that the United States will have a growing Hispanic population and that Hispanic culture will have a significant impact on the nature of the national culture and society. An Hispanic surname is now the tenth most frequent name in the country behind the more traditional Jones, Smith, and Brown. The Spanish language is already an important de-facto second language in many parts of the Southwest. Hollywood is more sensitive to Hispanic themes in its productions. Television and radio stations featuring Spanish language programing are becoming more numerous. Major corporations are appealing to Hispanic customers. Grocery stores increasingly cater to Hispanic taste. Hispanics are joining the military in large numbers and are distinguishing themselves in defense of the country. Politicians are courting the "Latino" vote not only in local and regional settings, but nationally as well. People with Hispanic heritage are being elected to important political positions. In a very real sense the melting pot is still hard at work, but not everyone is comfortable with the result. Hispanics are becoming part of the main stream culture and are in the process of helping to modify it just as every other immigrant wave has before them. Because of their numbers their impact may well be more rapid and more potent than many who came before them.
There is no question, but that the porous nature of the border is a serious security problem and that illegal immigration must be eliminated if the rule of law is to retain its validity. The itinerant Hispanic worker is not the real threat, but, the threat is real. The United States has long prided itself on its open borders. The increased terrorist threat has made open borders impossible to continue and systems must be developed to effectively monitor who and what comes into the United States. Not a simple task, but one that can be accomplished if sufficient resources and determination are applied to the problem. At the same time the emerging economy in the United States needs a flexible work force wiling to work in low paying positions. If US citizens find little interest in these positions the workers will need to be brought in from outside the country. As these new immigrants enter the United States it is important that they demonstrate a desire to become part of their new country. In so doing it is appropriate that they and their children learn English as every immigrant group before them has done. As this new influx of workers is absorbed into the society it may very well help relieve the economic implications of the baby boomer generation leaving the active workforce. The terrorist threat requires that an effective system of tracking any workers brought in from outside the country be in place and the workplace adequately policed to ensure conformance with all relevant labor laws. All of this is distasteful and smacks of government intruding into the daily life of the citizenry, but it increasingly appears to be a necessary part of life in the 21st Century.
As the United States enters the new century, profound change is taking place in the country and in the world. The globalization of the world's economy and the ever accelerating technological advances in every field imaginable are at the core of the challenge that faces not only the United States, but every country in the world. Assuming that the United States is able to retain its leadership role in the world's economy it will be able to easily absorb the changes brought about by a growing Hispanic population within its borders. If the United States does not continue this economic leadership role, the subsequent internal strains that follow will be reflected in the society through increased ethnic and cultural friction. Anglo-Hispanic, black-white, Asian-European, Asian-black, Hispanic-black, etc. When the economy is growing there is room at the table for everyone. When the economy is faltering it is easy to pin the blame for the decline in one's standard of living on someone who does not share your exact set of cultural values.