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Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration is Transforming America.

STRANGERS AMONG US: how Latino Immigration Is Transforming America by Roberto Suro Knopf, $26.95

FOR Washington Post REPORTER Roberto Suro, making life in the United States better for Latino immigrants like his parents, who came to the country from Puerto Rico and Ecuador, means making it harder for the would-be immigrants of today to follow them in.

That is the harsh and controversial conclusion of Suro's Strangers Among Us, which seeks to answer the questions raised by the stream of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean who are reconfiguring American politics and culture. The main answer from this son of immigrants is classic Us vs. Them. Even as Suro writes with deep empathy for Latinos already locked in the barrios of this country--the people who clean our houses, mow our lawns, and sort our garbage--when it comes to the question of the folks who are forced to steal across our borders and crawl through our deserts just to find work, he shows no mercy.

Sounding more like California Gov. Pete Wilson than the son of immigrants, Suro favors imposing strict controls at the borders, penalties to bar arrested undocumented crossers from future entry to the United States, and making economic aid to countries such as Mexico dependent on cooperation in stopping illegal immigration. He suggests Latinos legally living in the United States take the lead in attacking illegal immigration, advocating .they point their fingers at illegals living in their communities. "Latinos who have decided to make a permanent home in the United States--legal immigrants, new citizens, and the native born--must accept the fact that a large-scale illegal influx is harmful to their long-term interests," Suro writes.

As an answer to the puzzling problems that beset Latinos in the United States today, Suro's analysis is strictly myopic. He fails to consider that most illegal immigrants are relatives and friends of those here legally, and that many of those who are legal residents today were not when they arrived. He fails to consider the effect of closing our borders on countries such as Mexico, where both emigration and the drug trade serve to keep internal chaos at bay. And he gives short shrift to the great truth of all immigrations in history--that people are propelled to leave their homes in large numbers only when driven by economic necessity or repression. Without addressing its root causes, trying to address the effects of that flight are doomed to failure.

All of which serves to obscure what is in many respects a terrifically useful book by a reporter with the heart to do a great deal more leg work than most United States newspapers have done in the growing barrios in the cities they cover. Suro's book achieves its greatest depth in its exploration of the barrios of the United States, where millions of immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean live, die, and suffer in the shadows of the larger culture around them. Through the author's eyes, we read in searing detail of Latinos throwing Molotov cocktails during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and of a U.S.-born teenage mother-to-be in Houston who rejects both the Mexico of her parents and the responsibility of her unborn child. We read about Dominican taxi drivers in New York more preoccupied with the politics of their homeland than with making a way for themselves in their new home, about the luxe life of Cuban Miami, the sad history of the Puerto Ricans in New York, and the barrio life of Guatemalans in Houston.

Wherever Suro lands, he never lets up on his urgent and mostly pessimistic thesis: Instead of learning how to succeed in the United States, as immigrant groups before them have done, Latinos are learning how to be poor; that even as Latinos tend our children, sweat and smile for us, serve us fast food, and pick our fruit, they are at risk of forever dwelling in an internal borderland.

At the heart of his analysis is the belief that Latino immigration today is different than any immigration before it, and that the failure of Latinos in the United States to climb out of the ghetto at the rate earlier immigrants did is the result of forces beyond their control. Latino immigration is a different animal than earlier immigrant flows, Suro writes. It is vast, already larger than any single ethnic influx before it. It is largely illegal. And because Latinos come from countries that are close by, because new communications technology allows them to travel back and forth between their new land and their homeland, Latinos often straddle two worlds in a way earlier immigrants, whose homelands were lost in the mists of memory and nostalgia, did not. The effort often keeps Latino immigrants from mustering the energy to succeed here. And it leaves their children born here at a loss, vulnerable and uninvested in the American way of life.

Suro writes that factors that helped European immigrants move up in earlier generations elude Latinos today. Whereas Irish and Italians were able to climb a generational stepladder from canal diggers to factory workers to white-collar professionals, Suro argues the ladder is now missing its middle rungs. In information-age America, there is less room for immigrants to move up, Suro writes. Latino immigrants, who often come to the United States poorly educated, have a particularly hard time getting a foothold on the ladder in the new economy, Suro believes. Social scientists who say Latinos are locked in poverty because they are unprepared for life in the United States are wrong, he writes, insisting that it is the economy, society, and lack of good public education and social services that are failing Latinos today. Societal structures that helped earlier immigrants--unions, churches, schools--are in disrepair, he writes. Instead of the "level playing field" that confronted immigrants a generation ago, he writes, Latinos today are victims of a deteriorating life in the United States that exerts a powerful influence on their fate. The past, Suro writes, does not serve as a model for the future.

As empathy, Suro's conclusions are moving. As social analysis, they verge on the simplistic. Suro overlooks the success stories, the high achievers produced by those same schools, the difference between students whose parents stress homework and attendance and those who do not. By focusing exclusively on Latinos, he begs the question of why Asian immigrants, Pakistani and Indian immigrants, immigrants from the Middle East are not encountering the same obstacles he believes Latinos are.

In fact, the world of Latinos in the United States is far larger than what Suro explores. The success stories are more numerous than he admits. Suro writes that barrio children stand no chance because their parents work blisteringly hard and enjoy few luxuries. But doesn't that sound suspiciously like the story of every immigrant family everywhere?

As for Suro's thesis that there is no place for low-skilled immigrants in the information age, a study released in May by Wayne Cornelius, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, ironically one of the immigration experts Suro says he most relied on, concludes that computer-product manufacturers and other high technology businesses will continue to need new arrivals with little education and skill. In fact, Cornelius found that unskilled immigrant labor is increasingly "structurally embedded" into the economy, especially in California, where immigrants have largely replaced U.S.-born workers in many occupations, from electronics worker to gardener.

It is in his prescriptions for a new U.S. immigration policy that Suro appears most out of his league. He is rightly critical of the history of U.S. immigration policy, which has veered from luring Latinos here to pushing them out. But in focusing on the problematic history on the United States side of the border, Suro ignores the realities on the other side. If the United States follows the policy Suro suggests--and increasingly, doing otherwise is politically unpalatable--the United States could face what it has always feared: a real revolution in Mexico and true chaos on the border. To deprive Mexico of its largest sources of income would hasten the collapse of its already weak central authority. The illegal immigrants who manage the long journey to the United States may in fact be just the outlet countries on both sides of the border need--providing a much needed workforce in the United States while protecting against a potentially much larger flood of immigrants from a contiguous, troubled, and ever more populous Third World country.

ESTHER SCHRADER, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, was Mexico City correspondent for The San Jose Mercury News from 1993-1997.
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Author:Schrader, Esther
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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