ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Don't lose sleep over number of Hispanics

The only thing history will likely remember from last week's assembly of the Organization of American States in South Florida had nothing to do with the meeting's discussions. It was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's departing remark: "I have to go back to the United States."
She was leaving South Florida for Washington, of course. When she stepped down from the podium and Latin American and Caribbean diplomats reminded her jokingly that Fort Lauderdale -- where the meeting was taking place -- and neighboring Miami are still part of the United States, she shook her head and laughed with them, two Latin American diplomats who witnessed the scene told me later.
But in the current anti-immigration climate fueled by Hispanic-phobic television personalities such as CNN's Lou Dobbs and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Rice's unwitting remark will surely be portrayed as a reality by those who claim that parts of the United States are drifting apart from the rest of the country and want to speed up construction of a fence in southern California to stop the inflow of Mexican migrants.
Dobbs has been plaguing us for months with apocalyptic warnings that Hispanics are taking over the United States. Worse, they may be contagious, he says.
Harmful diseases?
On Wednesday, Dobbs warned viewers that "illegal aliens are bringing harmful diseases into this country." On April 14, he stated that "the invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans. Highly contagious diseases are now crossing our borders." (So, if you are Hispanic and happen to run into Mr. Dobbs, I suggest you wear surgical gloves for his protection.)
Last year, Hispanic fear-mongers got a pseudo-academic boost from renowned Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies Chairman Samuel Huntington, who claimed that "the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America -- and the fertility of these immigrants."
The latest U.S. Census figures released last week are likely to get the close-the-border crowd even more charged. According to the Census figures, the U.S. Hispanic population grew from 34.3 million in 2000 to 41.3 million in 2004, and its growth rates are still surpassing earlier projections.
The number of Hispanics is growing at 3.6 percent a year, while the overall U.S. population grew by 1 percent. And in high-immigration states such as Florida, the Hispanic population is growing by a rate of 4.5 percent a year.
Should anybody lose sleep over this?
Of course not. First, Hispanics will not create a nation within a nation, because Hispanics are blending into the U.S. population. A recent study by the Synovate market research company concluded that the number of Hispanics who don't consume English-speaking media has fallen from 40 percent to 26 percent over the past 12 years.
Second, the fact that many Hispanics speak Spanish at home should be applauded, and perhaps even imitated by many non-Hispanics. It helps make America more multicultural, more multilingual and better prepared to compete in the global economy.
In many European countries, people speak two or three languages. And after my recent visit to China, where all schoolchildren are beginning to study intensive English in third grade, I'm more convinced than ever that the United States will need more -- not less -- foreign input to remain the world's biggest power.
Waste of money
Third, the recent U.S. law providing new funds to extend a 3.5-mile border fence along the largely unprotected 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico is a monumental waste of money. The only way to stop massive illegal immigration will be to reduce the huge income gap between Mexico and the United States.
So the Bush administration should drastically expand and deepen the 11-year-old free trade agreement with Mexico, including development aid conditioned to economic reforms, and get the recently signed free trade deal with Central America approved by Congress.
The United States is in no danger of a Hispanic takeover, and if people like Dobbs, O'Reilly and Huntington took a crash course in Spanish, it might become a more competitive nation.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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