I arrived in Panama a few days after the December 1989 U.S. invasion. Mayín Correa, who would later become the extremely successful mayor of the capital, had arranged an interview for me with Gen. Marc Cisneros, commander of the U.S. forces in Panama. I wanted to know how he had managed to defeat the fierce partisans of the dictatorship practically without a fight.
Because I hadn't had time to prepare, I started by asking him when he had arrived in the United States, or if he had been born there. He looked at me with the polite patience of someone who is used to impertinent journalists who have not done their homework.
"I didn't arrive in the United States. The United States arrived at my family. We were in this territory before. We arrived here when it was Spain. We were there when it was Mexico. We were still there when it became Texas, and when, shortly after, it became the United States. I am a member of the tenth or eleventh generation established in the west of the nation."
Countries are elastic. They expand and shrink. It happens slowly, but it happens. At one time, Spain included Portugal and Roussillon.* At another period, Spain lost those territories, just as it lost the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Alsace-Lorraine has been French, German and then French again. Chile gained 120,000 kilometers (approximately 74,565 miles) at Bolivia's expense, but in those same years, it lost 750,000 kilometers (approximately 466,028 miles) when it granted a large portion of its Patagonian territory to Argentina. There is no country on earth that looks the same today as it did 180 years ago.
Sometimes the changes are brought about by political powers or through warfare, but other times, they are the consequence of demographic shifts. The border between the United States and Mexico is more than 3,000 kilometers long (approximately 1,864 miles). Every year, more than 50 million people cross it legally, in one direction or another. One million Americans live in Mexico, many of them retirees. And there are 35 million Mexican-Americans in the United States, many of whom have arrived in the last few decades or who are the children and grandchildren of those immigrants.
Many Americans, influenced by unjust stereotypes, are secretly annoyed by the presence in the country of millions of people who speak Spanish and who have different attitudes and values from those in mainstream society. They believe that Hispanic people are fundamentally different, and even that they have lower IQs than white people.
On the other hand, some Americans who are more realistic and generally better educated, understand that it is impossible to ignore the presence of Latinos, (even if only because there are more than 600 million Latinos in the New World) and who celebrate ethnic diversity as a social good, or, at the very least, an inevitable destiny.
At the end of the day, some of these enlightened Americans understand the demographic tendencies of the country and know that by the middle of the 21st century, there will be 100 million Latinos in the U.S., and that by 2117, just a century from today, there will be as many Latinos as white Americans in the United States.
This occurrence, logically, will have social consequences. Not every ethnic group faces the same results. This can be seen in the ethnic mosaic of the United States. The second generation of Hindu, Lebanese, Jewish, Greek, Armenians, Japanese, Korean and Chinese immigrants earn more and are more highly educated than the average white American.
This should encourage American society to focus its efforts on fostering better educational opportunities and integration for Latino immigrants. Such an approach would be very different from the current attempt to deny legal residency to young immigrants who were protected under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, the 800,000 Latino immigrants brought to the United States when they were children. Many of these immigrants are university students who are culturally American, and who have no emotional or linguistic connection with their country of origin. The sensible thing to do would be to build bridges that would allow and encourage these immigrants to remain in the country.
One of the arguments deployed in the congressional debates over Asian immigration nearly 100 years ago was that these immigrants had below-average intellectual capacity. Today, Asian-Americans have higher-than-average IQs and a significant presence in the country's best universities.
It is clear that the United States, currently the most powerful country in the world, has clear illusions of grandeur — it does not have to regain what it has not yet lost. Yet, if the White House wants to preserve American greatness, the smart move is not to build walls and shut the doors on Latino immigrants, but rather to build bridges, open places of study, and encourage them to play a brilliant role in the future of the country for the benefit of all.
*Editor’s note: Roussillon is one of the historical counties of the former Principality of Catalonia, which corresponds roughly to present-day eastern Pyrenees.