by Marene Gustin
Daily Court Review
Rice University Sociology Professor Stephen L. Klineberg has been tracking Houston’s social landscape since 1982. The author of the Houston Area Survey, (HAS) which tracks demographic patterns, life experiences, attitudes and beliefs annually, is seeing some disturbing yet expected changes not only in the demographics of the area but also in the way we feel about them. Since 2005, he’s noticed a growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
“It’s happening in Houston and throughout the nation,” Klineberg said. “But it’s not surprising. We are a nation of immigrants, but we don’t like the current immigrants.”
Historically, Klineberg notes that we’ve never been fond of large groups of immigrants, from the German settlers in New Braunfels to the Italians and Greeks. And, due to the “National Origins Quota Act” that slowed immigration in America to a trickle between 1924 and 1965, the current Anglo generation has not grown up with large populations of immigrants.
Certainly not Hispanics, since the act allotted immigration preference to Europeans. Adding to the sentiment.
Klineberg writes in the current HAS that: “The 1980’s marked a critical turning point in the demographic changes of Houston. The Anglo population of Harris County increased by 31 percent in the 1960s and by another 25 percent in the 1970s. After the collapse of the oil boom in 1982, however, the county’s Anglo population actually stopped growing and then declined.
Yet the region grew by another 17 percent during the 1980s and by 21 percent in the 1990s.”
Houston is the fourth-largest Hispanic market in the country and Hispanics account for 37.4 percent of the population. According to U.S. Census Bureau data there are 1.1 million Hispanics in Harris County. And as that number continues to grow, changes in Houston’s social fabric continue to shift.
“It’s in the process of changing dramatically,” Klineberg said. “This was a city built and controlled by white males, but 75 percent of the population under 30 is now non-Anglo. The new leadership of Houston will reflect that.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Houston will have a Hispanic mayor anytime soon. Hector Carreño, of Carreño Group Public Affairs Counselors, thinks it will be six to 12 years before we see that.
“The next group of Hispanics to run for mayor won’t come up through the political ranks,” he said. “But through the business ranks, like Bill White. Right now they’re out there making money and it will be a while before they come into public service.”
And there’s the issue that Hispanics don’t vote as a block.
“The Hispanic community is very diverse,” said Ron Trevino, a reporter and anchor for KHOU-TV for 25 years. “In Houston we have Mexicans, Guatemalans, Cubans. It’s a beautiful thing culturally, it’s hard to organize politically.”
But more than just politics, the changing demographics affect Houston on all levels including economically. Carreño is concerned about the education of future Hispanics, citing the issues surrounding undocumented Hispanics.
“Do we allow them to go to institutions of higher learning?” he asked. “The Rodeo doesn’t offer scholarships to this group. These are our future voters and taxpayers, what are they going to be like without education? Whose going to take care of us and be the taxpayer support base when we’re 75?”
The current economic climate is also affecting Hispanics adversely.
According to Labor Department statistics unemployment among Hispanics nationwide jumped to 6.9 percent in April up from 5.5 percent in April 2007. That’s above the national average overall and with a large number of Hispanics in construction, the slowdown in building and the mortgage crisis isn’t helping. But the good news is that the economic gap is narrowing with successive generations of immigrants. According to HAS, Houston Latinos with access to a computer, either in their home or workplace, rises from 26 percent for recent immigrants to 77 percent by the third generation.
Likewise those with health insurance increases from 37 to 82 percent and home ownership for immigrants who have lived here for 20 years or more is more likely (68 percent) than even U.S.-born Latinos.
It’s a picture that is being played out across the nation, as the immigration population continues to expand. Houston and the state of Texas are on the bubble of that expansion with the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Issues of race, culture and in particular immigration policy, will have to be addressed by both the old guard and the new in order to take advantage of the changes.
So what do these demographic changes mean? What does the future hold for Houston?
“Anxiety and insecurity,” Klineberg said. “But also excitement. Houston is becoming a microcosm of the world. It could be our greatest asset, or it could tear Houston apart. How it plays out is a question for all of us.”