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Kamala Harris, Daughter of Immigrants, Is the Face of America’s Demographic Shift

Her parents’ arrival to Berkeley as young graduate students was the beginning of a historic wave of immigration from outside Europe that would change the United States in ways its leaders never imagined.

By Sabrina Tavernise

August 15, 2020

When Kamala Harris’s mother left India for California in 1958, the percentage of Americans who were immigrants was at its lowest point in over a century.

That was about to change.

Her arrival at Berkeley as a young graduate student — and that of another student, an immigrant from Jamaica whom she would marry — was the beginning of a historic wave of immigration from outside Europe that would transform the United States in ways its leaders never imagined. Now, the American-born children of these immigrants — people like Ms. Harris — are the face of this country’s demographic future.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice of Ms. Harris as his running mate has been celebrated as a milestone because she is the first Black woman and the first of Indian descent in American history to be on a major party’s presidential ticket. But her selection also highlights a remarkable shift in this country: the rise of a new wave of children of immigrants, or second-generation Americans, as a growing political and cultural force, different from any that has come before.

The last major influx of immigrants, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. This time the surge comes from around the world, from India and Jamaica to China and Mexico and beyond.

In California, the state where Ms. Harris grew up and which she now represents in the Senate, about half of all children come from immigrant homes. Nationwide, for the first time in this country’s history, whites make up less than half of the population under the age of 16, the Brookings Institution has found; the trend is driven by larger numbers of Asians, Hispanics and people who are multiracial.

Today, more than a quarter of American adults are immigrants or the American-born children of immigrants. About 25 million adults are American-born children of immigrants, representing about 10 percent of the adult population, according to Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center. By comparison the foreign-born portion of the population is still much larger — about 42 million adults, or roughly one in six of the country’s 250 million adults, Mr. Passel noted.

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At 55, Ms. Harris is on the older side of this second generation of Americans whose parents came in those early years. But her family is part of a larger trend that has broad implications for the country’s identity, transforming a mostly white baby-boomer society into a multiethnic and racial patchwork.

Kamala Harris, left, stands with her sister, Maya, and mother, Shyamala, outside their apartment in Berkeley, Calif., in 1970.
Kamala Harris, left, stands with her sister, Maya, and mother, Shyamala, outside their apartment in Berkeley, Calif., in 1970.Credit…Kamala Harris campaign, via Associated Press

Because of the influx of immigrants from outside Europe and their children, every successive generation in America in the past half-century has been less white than the one before: Boomers are 71.6 percent white, Millennials are 55 percent white, and post-Gen Z, those born after 2012, are 49.6 percent white, according William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“The demography is moving forward,” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, chancellor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has studied these modern children of immigrants from the Caribbean, China, Central America, and Mexico. “This is the future in the U.S.”

Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller

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