The gulf between the perspective of Stewart and his supporters, who believe the law has helped the county, and Hispanics and others who view it as discriminatory, shows no sign of narrowing. Indeed that same gulf is now evident in states such as Alabama, Arizona, and South Carolina that have pursued similar initiatives. All of these struggles are a reminder that the demographic transformation bringing new faces to places unaccustomed to them promises years not only of new connections but new collisions as well.
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
The demographic trends transforming American communities across the country have triggered a process of adaptation–often forced, often tentative, and more painful in some places than others.
The growing presence of minorities in even the least-expected places, sustained by immigration and high birthrates, continues to test the capacity of communities and of the country itself to absorb the initial shock.
But so far, experience suggests that the longer communities are exposed to newcomers, the more likely initial resistance will yield to some measure of tolerance and understanding. In most cases, once the long-standing residents accept that change is inevitable and that they need minority and new residents to ensure the future of their economy and community, the choice becomes evident.
Undergirding the tension between individuals or groups within a community are often structural factors that can’t be breached by cultural understanding alone. One of the most powerful of these is undocumented immigration. So long as significant portions of the Hispanic population are here illegally, it is difficult for groups to engage in the open dialogue needed for successful integration. While immigration reform remains an enormously polarizing issue nationally, there seems little question that it has the potential to foster greater connection in many communities undergoing rapid change.
In the meantime, however, the internal structure of many immigrant families is helping advance this dialogue by another means. The children of many undocumented immigrants are first-generation Americans who speak English, are integrated into society, and serve as a sort of cultural bridge for their parents. Of course, many of these children also encounter obstacles to integration and upward mobility; too many fail to graduate from high school, much less college. But younger generations, both of newcomers and in the longer-established community, have grown up in the midst of demographic change; they are more likely to accept it as a way of life.
Intertwined with the struggle for individual empowerment and advancement are the obstacles minorities face to political enfranchisement—to have a seat at the table to make the decisions that affect them as a group and the communities at large. On one hand, the large number of undocumented immigrants and lower participation rates—even for Hispanics here legally— guarantees that minority voting power will be limited relative to the size of the population. On the other, efforts to register and mobilize voters are facing ever-higher obstacles imposed by Republican governors and state legislators who argue that restrictions are needed to combat fraud.
The difficulty Latinos face in converting their increased numbers and economic importance into political power means that ultimately, the responsibility lies with leaders of the receiving community to represent everyone. Political leaders at all levels face a decision that often determines the immediate fortunes of their communities: whether to facilitate change and provide support for integration or to perpetuate divisions and risk economic strain or even collapse.
As the nation navigates these unsettled waters, the most hopeful sign is the proliferation of grassroots groups that have persuaded longtime residents to accept newcomers, if not out of genuine appreciation for diversity, at least from an awareness of economic necessity. One Iowa farmer offered what might be the best advice for a nation still adjusting to this epic infusion of diversity: “We have to agree to row in the same direction to stay afloat, because we’re all in the same boat.”
Maribel Hastings is a senior adviser and correspondent for America's Voice.