A special report on Texas
The new face of America
Jul 9th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Texas is the bellwether for demographic change across the country
AT THE age of 34, Julian Castro has pulled off a remarkable feat. On May 9th, without even the need for a run-off, the polished young lawyer won the race to become mayor of San Antonio, the largest Hispanic-majority city in America and the seventh-biggest city in the entire country. He joins Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, as one of America’s half-dozen most prominent Hispanics.
The curious thing is that Mr Castro is only the third Hispanic mayor in San Antonio’s long history; the first, Henry Cisneros, was elected only in 1981. America’s Hispanics have a long way to go before they enjoy the influence that their numbers suggest. “We do have a history of failing to participate,” he admits. “But we have been seeing a series of big advances.”
Things are indeed changing. At the national level voter turnout among Hispanics was 49.9% last year, up from 47.2% in 2004, though still much lower than the non-Hispanic whites’ 66.1%. The body to watch is the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC), which claims 44 of the 74 Democrats in the Texas House (there is not one Hispanic Republican there, a gigantic problem for the party). Trey Martinez Fischer, who chairs MALC, is another young man in a hurry. “MALC is taking over the Democratic Party here,” he says, “and it is time for us to expand our footprint.”
The most pressing issue, he reckons, remains education. “We are creating a majority population here that is limited in its skill set. It is up to us: if we don’t act, we are heading for disaster.” But it is not just education; Hispanics, he says, are poorly served when it comes to access to capital, health care and public transport. “This state”, he says, “has not yet atoned for the sins of its past.”
You only need to tour the Rio Grande valley, which stretches from Brownsville in the east up almost as far as Laredo, to see what he means. The valley includes some of Texas’s fastest-growing and most successful counties, such as Cameron County around Brownsville and Hidalgo County around McAllen; Brownsville has boomed, thanks in large part to its port, which serves Mexico’s buoyant north. McAllen has also become a favoured place for rich Mexicans to buy homes, educate their children and squirrel their money away; its mayor, the engagingly town-proud Richard Cortes, has big plans for an arts district, upmarket shopping centres, a huge public library which he says will be the fifth-largest in the country, and much else.
Down in the valley
But you can also encounter poverty on a scale hard to find anywhere else in America. More than 30% of the valley’s population still falls beneath America’s official poverty level, according to Sister Maria Sanchez of Valley Interfaith, a local charity. The poorest among them are to be found in the colonias, small settlements outside recognised towns. There are around 2,300 colonias in total, and the worst of them still have large numbers of houses without running water. In recent years state money has hugely improved some of them, such as Las Milpas, outside McAllen. Others, like Los Altos outside Laredo, are a national disgrace. “We are the richest country in the world, and we still have this,” says Jaime Arispe, of the Laredo Office of Border Affairs, as he surveys a street that looks as if it could be in Port-au-Prince.
Others echo Mr Martinez Fischer’s views, if not quite the passion with which he expresses them. Rafael Anchia, another House member, was recently tipped by Texas Monthly as the first Hispanic governor of Texas—though not until 2018. He brushes the accolade aside, but like Mr Martinez Fischer says that the state has systematically underfunded public education and insists this will have to change.
Health care is another racial issue. Texas has the worst insurance-coverage rates in America, and Hispanics, as well as blacks, fare much worse than Anglos; most Americans get their health care through their companies, but Hispanics and blacks are more likely to work for employers who provide limited benefits or none, or to be unemployed.
The flaws in the American health system are mostly a federal matter, but Texas makes them worse by failing to take up available federal dollars because of the need for co-finance by the recipient state; by providing few public clinics; and by refusing to reimburse private hospitals for the cost of emergency care for people who cannot afford to pay, forcing them to jack up prices for others. It also operates one of the least generous subsidy regimes for poor children in the country.
The reason why MALC will have to be listened to on all these counts is demographic. The Hispanic population is constantly being reinforced by the arrival of immigrants from across the Rio Grande, though economic, political and security pressures have started to make the border less permeable.
But international migration is not the main driver of Texas’s booming population. Texas’s Hispanics, on average, are younger than the Anglos, and their women have more babies. In 2007 just over 50% of the babies in Texas were born to Latinas, even though Hispanics make up only 38% of the population. Over the eight years to 2008, reckons Karl Eschbach, Texas’s official state demographer, natural increase (which favours Hispanics) accounted for just over half the 3.5m increase in the state’s population, and migration from other states for almost half of the rest.
Even if the border closed tomorrow, Hispanics would still overtake the Anglos by 2034, reckons Mr Eschbach. Recent trends suggest that this will in fact happen by 2015. More than half the children in the first grade of Texas schools are Hispanic. And in the Houston public-school district the proportion is 61%, notes Stephen Klineberg, of Rice University. (African-Americans make up another 27%.)
Getty ImagesPledging allegiance
Nor is it only Texas that is undergoing profound demographic shifts, says Mr Klineberg. Texas today is what all of America will look like tomorrow. At the moment there are only four “minority-majority” states (that is, states where non-Hispanic whites, or Anglos, are in the minority): California, Texas, Hawaii and New Mexico. He expects the 2010 census to show as many as 10-12 states to have passed that milestone; by 2040, he thinks, America itself will be a minority-majority nation.
The geographical spread of Texas’s Hispanic population has changed in a way that will change the state’s politics. Most Latinos used to live south of the I-10, the motorway that joins San Antonio to Houston, notes Mr Anchia. But now Dallas, like Houston, has considerably more Hispanics than Anglos: a little over 40% of the population against around 30%. Mr Anchia himself represents a district that includes part of Dallas and a swathe of prosperous suburbs, including some where there have been nasty rows about illegal immigration.
Even public schools up in the once lily-white panhandle in the north of the state are seeing their classes fill up with Hispanic children; to take a random example, in tiny Stratford up on the border with Oklahoma some 54% of the children at the local high school are Hispanic. “Every single institution in this state was built by Anglos for Anglos,” says Mr Klineberg. “And they will all have to change.”
Come on in
That might be easier than it sounds. Texas has proved far better than the other border states (California, New Mexico and Arizona) at adapting to the new, peaceful reconquista. In California, Proposition 187, which cracked down hard on illegal immigration, was heartily backed by the then Republican governor and passed in a referendum in 1994, though it was later struck down by a federal court. This kind of thing has only ever been attempted in Texas at local level, and even then only very rarely.
Texas has always been a strong supporter of immigration reform that would offer illegal immigrants (of whom Texas has close to 2m, about 7% of its population) a path to citizenship. It has also always favoured NAFTA. Perhaps that is because Texas was itself Mexican until 1836. For centuries the border, demarcated by the Rio Grande, was entirely porous, and its very length meant that much of Texas felt joined to Mexico—a cultural affinity evidenced in the fact that the margarita and the fajita were both invented in Texas.
Only recently, at the behest of distant authorities in Washington, DC, has this sense of propinquity seemed to weaken. Driven by anger elsewhere in America, immigration officials raid businesses looking for workers with false Social-Security numbers. Driven by post-2001 fears, the number of Border Patrol officers is being increased from 6,000 in 1996 to 20,000.
Texans don’t like this much. In April Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s chamber of commerce, made a powerful speech to a Senate hearing in Washington in which he rebutted the notion that undocumented workers are a drain on America’s resources. According to a study he presented, they are more likely to be net contributors in fiscal terms. He argued that they mostly complement rather than compete with domestic workers, and that they are less likely to commit crimes than the native population. And he pointed out that cracking down on illegals has had a perverse effect, ending a pattern of seasonal or circular migration that has served Texas well for many decades. Instead, it has encouraged the use of people-smugglers bringing across whole families who then tend to stay. It has fenced people in, not out.
Mr Moseley used the word “fence” calculatedly. Down in southern Texas there is no five-letter word more likely to provoke anger. The way Texans see it, the fence that is being built along a third of America’s 2,000-mile long southern border is an expensive waste of time. It sends an appalling signal to a friendly neighbour; it is easy to climb over, with or without a ladder; it is easy to circumvent; it is bad for the environment, because it cuts off animals from their water sources; and it tramples on the rights of landowners, since it has to be built well back from the riverside so as not to interfere with flood channels.
But if the fence itself is likely to have little effect on illegal immigration, the fear of terror that gave rise to it, coupled with the recession on both sides of the border and Mexico’s murderous struggle with the drug lords in its border cities, are certainly affecting both the legal and the illegal sort of crossing. Everyone along the valley of the Rio Grande seems to believe that the border is slowly closing.
At the extreme eastern end of the border, Jude Benavides, an ecologist at the University of Texas at Brownsville, laments how life has changed. “Three of my four grandparents are from Mexico,” he says. “We used to cross over the bridge to Matamoros just for lunch or dinner. Now we don’t go. We are scared of the violence, and it can sometimes take as long as two hours in line to get back across.”
The economy, too, is a powerful reason why people are crossing less often. The Mexican peso has fallen by 18% against the dollar since the beginning of 2008. That has hit retailers on the American side hard. Mexicans in the northern border provinces have been hurt by the collapse of America’s car industry. Many of the maquiladoras, factories set up just on the Mexican side of the border to benefit from lower wages and land costs, have specialised in making parts for Detroit. One of Texas’s main assets is a bit distressed just now.
Don’t mess with Texas
So Texas has a huge challenge to cope with. But it seems wrong to end on a pessimistic note. Texans above all are optimists, and few of them seem to doubt that Mexico’s proximity is a huge long-term source of strength for the Lone Star state. That optimism, rooted in a profound sense of local pride that can sometimes jar with outsiders, is Texas’s dominant characteristic.
It is the reason why the wildcatter, the independent oilman whose test drillings might come up dry 20 times before gushing in the end, is an enduring Texas symbol. And it explains why risk-taking is admired and failure no disgrace. Most of the Enron executives who lost their jobs when the firm went bust in 2001 quickly found new ones. The company’s offices in Houston were swiftly re-let. Enron Field baseball stadium became Minute Maid Park. “Don’t mess with Texas” was once a slogan for a wildly successful anti-litter campaign. It is now the state’s unofficial motto.
To visit America in the midst of the worst recession for decades can be a disheartening experience, but a tour of Texas is quite the reverse. Since suffering that big shock in the 1980s, it has become a well-diversified, fiscally sensible state; one where the great racial realignment that will affect all of America is already far advanced; and one whose politics is gradually finding the centre. It welcomes and assimilates all new arrivals. No wonder so many people are making a beeline for it.