Illegality | Illegal entry into the United States is overwhelmingly a post-1965 and Mexican phenomenon. For almost a century after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, no national laws restricted or prohibited immigration, and only a few states imposed modest limits. During the following 90 years, illegal immigration was minimal and easily controlled. The 1965 immigration law, the increased availability of transportation, and the intensified forces promoting Mexican emigration drastically changed this situation. Apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol rose from 1.6 million in the 1960s to 8.3 million in the 1970s, 11.9 million in the 1980s, and 14.7 million in the 1990s. Estimates of the Mexicans who successfully enter illegally each year range from 105,000 (according to a binational Mexican-American commission) to 350,000 during the 1990s (according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service).
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act contained provisions to legalize the status of existing illegal immigrants and to reduce future illegal immigration through employer sanctions and other means. The former goal was achieved: Some 3.1 million illegal immigrants, about 90 percent of them from Mexico, became legal "green card" residents of the United States. But the latter goal remains elusive. Estimates of the total number of illegal immigrants in the United States rose from 4 million in 1995 to 6 million in 1998, to 7 million in 2000, and to between 8 and 10 million by 2003. Mexicans accounted for 58 percent of the total illegal population in the United States in 1990; by 2000, an estimated 4.8 million illegal Mexicans made up 69 percent of that population. In 2000, illegal Mexicans in the United States were 25 times as numerous as the next largest contingent, from El Salvador.
Regional Concentration | The U.S. Founding Fathers considered the dispersion of immigrants essential to their assimilation. That has been the pattern historically and continues to be the pattern for most contemporary non-Hispanic immigrants. Hispanics, however, have tended to concentrate regionally: Mexicans in Southern California, Cubans in Miami, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans (the last of whom are not technically immigrants) in New York. The more concentrated immigrants become, the slower and less complete is their assimilation.
In the 1990s, the proportions of Hispanics continued to grow in these regions of heaviest concentration. At the same time, Mexicans and other Hispanics were also establishing beachheads elsewhere. While the absolute numbers are often small, the states with the largest percentage increases in Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000 were, in decreasing order: North Carolina (449 percent increase), Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Nevada, and Alabama (222 percent). Hispanics have also established concentrations in individual cities and towns throughout the United States. For example, in 2003, more than 40 percent of the population of Hartford, Connecticut, was Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican), outnumbering the city's 38 percent black population. "Hartford," the city's first Hispanic mayor proclaimed, "has become a Latin city, so to speak. It's a sign of things to come," with Spanish increasingly used as the language of commerce and government.
The biggest concentrations of Hispanics, however, are in the Southwest, particularly California. In 2000, nearly two thirds of Mexican immigrants lived in the West, and nearly half in California. To be sure, the Los Angeles area has immigrants from many countries, including Korea and Vietnam. The sources of California's foreign-born population, however, differ sharply from those of the rest of the country, with those from a single country, Mexico, exceeding totals for all of the immigrants from Europe and Asia. In Los Angeles, Hispanics -- overwhelmingly Mexican -- far outnumber other groups. In 2000, 64 percent of the Hispanics in Los Angeles were of Mexican origin, and 46.5 percent of Los Angeles residents were Hispanic, while 29.7 percent were non-Hispanic whites. By 2010, it is estimated that Hispanics will make up more than half of the Los Angeles population.
Most immigrant groups have higher fertility rates than natives, and hence the impact of immigration is felt heavily in schools. The highly diversified immigration into New York, for example, creates the problem of teachers dealing with classes containing students who may speak 20 different languages at home. In contrast, Hispanic children make up substantial majorities of the students in the schools in many Southwestern cities. "No school system in a major U.S. city," political scientists Katrina Burgess and Abraham Lowenthal said of Los Angeles in their 1993 study of Mexico-California ties, "has ever experienced such a large influx of students from a single foreign country. The schools of Los Angeles are becoming Mexican." By 2002, more than 70 percent of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District were Hispanic, predominantly Mexican, with the proportion increasing steadily; 10 percent of schoolchildren were non-Hispanic whites. In 2003, for the first time since the 1850s, a majority of newborn children in California were Hispanic.