Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, May 28, 2012

Population and Politics of North America: The United States

My country of origin.  I come from the region called the Pacific Northwest which includes the Canadian province of British Columbia.  Like many I have family on both sides of that border with relatives in both B.C and Quebec. On the U.S. side we are scattered all over the West in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.  Our family origins are very diverse - we are a mix of Native American, French, English, Scots-Irish, German and Norwegian (my maiden name is Reslock, the American version of Reslokken).  In short, not at all unusual for the U.S.

I preface this post with a brief mention of my origins because it has and will always have an impact even today on how I look at my home country.  My view of the U.S. is filtered through the prism of my childhood passed in one, and only one, region.  I was raised to have a very particular view of "us" (Seattleites) and "them" (people from the Wicked East, the Midwest, California, and the South).  Before I left the U.S. I had never traveled extensively in my own country and all the regions I just mentioned were a complete mystery to me.  Oh, imagine my shock to discover in my early twenties that the world was vaster and infinitely more complicated than I ever imagined.  In this piece I will try to be as neutral as possible given the limits of my experience then and now.

The United States

The United States is the third largest country in the world after Russia and Canada.  Like both these nations the U.S. has a very diverse topography:  mountains, prairies, forests, deserts.  The population was around 313 million in 2011 making it the most populated country in North America (Mexico comes in second at around 114 million).  The fertility rate is about 2.06 children per woman (higher than Canada, closer to Greenland's and just slightly below replacement level).  Population density is low compared to Europe but much higher than Canada.  Fly over the country from east to west and there's a lot of empty space with no cities, towns, roads or other evidence of human presence.  Some regions are downright unwelcoming:  too hot, too dry, too remote.  Even in areas perfectly suitable for human habitation, some very basic services (electricity, sewer and the like) are not not necessarily a given. When I was a child we had a piece of property in a remote area and we had to put in a septic tank and a road from the main road to the house and dig ditches for the electricity to be brought in.  It was not unusual in the winter to lose power  because the lines would go down.  A woodstove was not a "nice to have", it was a "very important to have" and it was used. I learned how to manage a chainsaw before I learned to drive.

Life expectancy is 78 years which is quite good.  Infant mortality is high (5.98 per 1,000 live births) compared to many other developed countries but low for North America - lower than Mexico (16.77) and Greenland (9.83) but higher than Canada (4.85).  The net migration rate (difference between immigration and emigration) is also very good:  4.18 migrant(s)/1,000 population which is lower than Canada (5.65) but higher than Mexico (-3.24) and Greenland (-5.98).

The U.S. is so obviously a country of immigration that it seems almost silly to point this out.  But the history of that immigration is fascinating and there are a few things worth mentioning here that have a bearing on the situation in 2012.  Race, for example.  Even when immigrants were highly sought after to the extent that the U.S. actually sent agents abroad to poach people, the U.S. tried to manage that immigration via policies that favored Europeans (Canada did the same thing by the way).  Not all Europeans were viewed alike however.  The Irish were heavily discriminated against when they came in large numbers as were Italians and Eastern Europeans.  The Germans fared better except for the period of the two world wars in the 20th century (my second generation German-American grandmother had some amazing stories to tell about that period).  Probably the most blatantly exclusionary policies were directed again Asians during the 19th and 20th century with laws passed to exclude Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Japanese, Southeast Asians and to prevent some of them from acquiring U.S. citizenship (policies by the way that were much admired by some French politicians at the time who tried to propose something similar for the Hexagon).  This changed in 1965 with the abolition of national origin immigration quotas.

I would remiss if I did not mention two other populations.  Millions of Africans were brought to America as "involuntary migrants" to labor as slaves.  That "peculiar institution" began in the 17th century and was not officially ended until the middle of the 19th century and it took a Civil War to eliminate it entirely.  Today their descendants make up about 13% of the American population.  The other group predates the arrival of European settlers.  Known as "American Indians" or "Native Americans" these were the indigenous people who were displaced or eliminated by European settlement.  Estimates of their population at the time of the European "discovery" of the continent vary widely and the sheer diversity of the different peoples and their customs and languages make lumping them under the "Indian" label very misleading.  Many tribes still exist and there are around 300 reservations today.  Some tribes are prosperous and growing, others are struggling.  In 2011 the U.S. reports they number 5.2 million and are projected to grow to 8.6 million by 2050 (about 2% of the population.)  I'm a bit curious about those numbers because I have cousins from two branches of my family who are from two different tribes and are also part European-American.  I seem to recall that one cousin said she self-identified as "Native American" when asked.  Honestly I'm not sure how it works - any clarification on this would be welcome.

So this nation, already very diverse, is undergoing some interesting demographic changes as we enter the 21st century.  This article has a very nice summary of the major trends.  We've already seen that the fertility rate has dropped slightly below replacement and the population is getting older:
Between 2010 and 2011, the number of children declined by 190,000, while the number of elderly increased by 917,000; just a decade ago we added more children than elderly. Also down sharply is growth in the number of working-age adults, including those in prime childbearing ages. With more baby boomers retiring and fewer people of reproductive age, births could decline further, and the United States could start to resemble elderly-heavy, slow-growth European countries, Mather noted.
Net migration is down slightly but is still pretty high.  Most immigrants seem to be allowed entry though family ties, not professional or educational qualifications. In my previous post I cited a U.S. government report (see table 6) that said that in 2010 out of the roughly 1 million requests granted, 476,414 applicants for residency were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 215,000 were "Family-sponsored Preferences" and only 148,343 were economic migrants ("Employer-based Preferences").  In the 19th century most immigrants to the U.S. came from Europe.  Today, of those seeking permanent residency status, migrants are most likely to come from (2010 data from MPI):  Mexico, China, India, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Vietnam, Haiti, Columbia and South Korea.  This report, The Changing Demographic Profile of the United States published in 2011 has some fascinating stats. By 2050 the U.S. will be more Asian and Hispanic.  The Pew Research Center concurs and says that Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the U.S with a little over 16% of the population and will make up 29% of the population by 2050.  Going back to the first report, have a look at Table 2. "U.S. Immigration and Estimated Emigration, by Decade: 1931-2009" on page 12.  You will see the first statistics I've seen that show U.S. emigration as well as immigration.  For those of you with an interest in this topic, it might be interesting to get a copy of their sources.

Given that a lot of the immigration is coming from Mexico, a state that borders the U.S., this makes for an interesting political problem.  On the U.S. side the rhetoric has become very ugly recently with talks of building an electrified fence to keep people (primarily those from Mexico and other countries in Latin America) out.  Some analysts believe that the right-wing party in the U.S. (Republicans) is committing political suicide by becoming too closely associated with anti-migrant sentiment - something that is likely to deeply offend the fast growing population of Hispanics in the U.S who have friends and family who are immigrants.  However, the Obama administration (Democrat) has been very aggressive about deporting undocumented Mexican nationals which is causing tensions within the U.S. and with its neighbor, Mexico.  Whatever their status in the U.S. these being deported are citizens of Mexico and the Mexican consulates in the U.S. are said to be providing help when possible. On the Mexican side the government has made things much easier on their diaspora in the U.S. by allowing dual citizenship and giving limited voting rights to their citizens abroad.  The Mexican government has also joined with  other nations like Peru to challenge in U.S. court the new immigration laws of Alabama and Georgia.

A last word.  Though immigration from Mexico to the U.S. is the subject of many headlines and much heated debate what is often neglected is U.S. immigration to Mexico.  Remember, most international migration is regional and just as there are many American in Canada, and Canadians and Mexicans in the U.S., there is also a growing population of Americans in Mexico.  Estimates range from a a few hundred thousand to as high as 500,000 (or even 1 million).  Hard to know.  Many are retirees, some are reported to be there for more reasonably priced healthcare, others are teaching English or working. And it may come as a big surprise to Americans in the homeland that not all of them are there legally. In addition to that article, the BBC recently published this piece about "Illegal Americans" which I found mighty interesting.  

In the next post let's leave the U.S. behind and talk more about Mexico, a really beautiful country.  I'm going to see if I can dig up some pictures from a friend of mine in Mexico City to show you...

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