A recent Pew Hispanic Center report, “When Labels Don’t Fit,” shows that the 50 million Americans of Hispanic descent have some huge gaps still to bridge if assimilation to American society is to be achieved. It obviously has not been achieved yet for an alarming number of Hispanics into the third generation.

To be fair, there is both good news and bad news buried in the lengthy report. The data neither completely confirm nor convincingly refute the worst fears of those who see massive Hispanic immigration as a problem for America’s civic culture. All the same, some of the findings raise profound questions for immigration policy.

Probably the most important item to emerge from the Pew poll is that 51 percent of the 50 million Americans of Hispanic origin still identify primarily with their country of origin, and only 21 percent use the term “American” to describe themselves. Some might say the silver lining is that this identification as an American increases dramatically from only 8 percent among first generation immigrants to 48 percent by the third generation.

But if only 48 percent of third-generation Hispanic adults describe themselves as Americans first and Peruvians or Mexicans or Cubans second, can anyone say that assimilation is working well for Hispanic immigrants? That glass is clearly not half full. Shouldn’t we expect that third-generation number to be closer to 90 percent?

To put the question in perspective, would anyone have been alarmed in 1935 if a similar poll had revealed that only 48 percent of U.S.-born third-generation Germans or third-generation Italians identified themselves as Americans? Don’t we expect assimilation to accomplish more than that?

It is all the more alarming when we consider that 60 percent or more of these Hispanics come from nations on or very close to our border. A third-generation Ghanan who still identifies with Ghana is only a curiosity, but if 52 percent of adult Mexican-Americans still identify themselves as Mexican and 52 percent of third-generation Cubans still think of themselves as Cuban, well, pardon me for saying so, but, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Some of the other findings are also troubling:

  • 47 percent of Hispanic Americans consider themselves to be different from the typical American, and this declines only slightly to 34 percent among U.S.-born Hispanics;

  • 38 percent are bilingual in using Spanish and English with equal ease, but among those with a preference, 38 percent prefer speaking Spanish while only 24 percent prefer to use English;

  • 31 percent of those surveyed described themselves as either liberal or very liberal compared to 21 percent of all Americans – which seems contradictory to other polling data showing Hispanics have more conservative values than other Americans;

  • Many pundits will applaud the fact that 82 percent of adult Hispanics can speak English, but what are we to make of the 18 percent who do not? Maybe it’s just as well that the data do not tell us how many of these 9 million non-English speaking adults are registered voters.

One of the most interesting and encouraging findings is that 69 percent of adults of Hispanic origin do not think they share a common culture with other Hispanics. They believe there are multiple cultures based in their country of origin, and they reject the idea of a pan-ethnic identity based on language or some “pre-Columbian” civilization. The National Council of La Raza will not be pleased.

In fact, many agencies and government programs have dropped the term assimilation in favor of the more ambiguous “integration” as a goal of social policy. That’s why official circles and the liberal news media will not be alarmed by any of these poll findings. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there.

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