Immigrants Drawn into the American Dream
Many Americans look down their noses at recent immigrants even while looking back nostalgically at their own immigrant forebears. Some thread that needle by maintaining that recent immigrants, most of whom come from Asia and Latin America, don't measure up to previous waves that came mostly from European countries.
For instance, the current crop of immigrants supposedly refuses to assimilate. How infuriating -- and, in most cases, according to a new study on assimilation from the libertarian Manhattan Institute, how untrue.
Billed as the first annual Index of Immigrant Assimilation, the study was authored by Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor. The index measured three types of assimilation: economic (employment, education, homeownership); cultural (intermarriage, English proficiency, family size); and civic (citizenship rates, military service, voting).
Then it compared the assimilation rates of recent immigrants by country of origin. It also measured how immigrants are assimilating compared with those who arrived in the early 1900s. Those from Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines have high rates of assimilation across the board. But those from India and Canada have among the lowest rates of civic assimilation, since many of them don't become naturalized.
The survey didn't differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants because it relied on census data, and the census doesn't ask respondents their legal status.
Far from discovering that recent immigrants were dragging their feet through the assimilation process, the study found that "immigrants of the past quarter-century have assimilated more rapidly than their counterparts of a century ago, even though they are more distinct from the native population upon arrival." In other words, the immigrants arrive with more miles to travel in terms of adjusting to the mainstream, yet they get there in record time.
Some Americans will have a tough time buying that. When they think of whether immigrants are assimilating, they don't think of studies and indexes. Instead, they want to know why ATMs offer the option of banking in Vietnamese, or why we have ballots in Chinese. And what about Spanish-language billboards, or the fact that the local library offers a bilingual story time?
Rest easy. America's ability to integrate new immigrants is, according to the study, as strong as ever. Assimilation happens, whether the immigrants like it or not, even if, as is often the case, it takes a generation to complete the process.
"The children of immigrants make up most of the ground that separated their parents from the native-born," Vigdor told me.
And that's true even with the one population that has the lowest rate of assimilation: Mexicans. Although they have relatively normal rates of cultural assimilation -- and are more likely to be culturally assimilated than immigrants from China and India -- Mexicans also have low levels of civic and economic assimilation.
I asked Vigdor if Mexican immigrants aren't traveling the same path as, say, Italian immigrants in the early 20th century.
"The answer is no," he said. "There are many groups in the U.S. today that are making more rapid progress than the Italians of a hundred years ago, but Mexicans are not."
Still, Vigdor maintains, cultural influences are a two-way street. This isn't a test that Mexicans are failing.
"The index measures degree of similarity between natives and the foreign-born," he said. "But we're not imposing a requirement that the immigrants have to become more like the native-born. The process can work both ways."
Vigdor insisted that one of the things preventing Mexicans from assimilating is that -- as primarily economic migrants from a country that borders the United States -- many of them expect to go back home at some point, and so they feel less pressure to assimilate. That's harmful for both the immigrant and the United States.
"We're developing this permanent group of -- you could call them second-class citizens, but the term 'citizen' doesn't even apply," he said. "They serve a vital role in the economy. But they don't have the full rights of citizens or even permanent residents. They're in the shadows of the labor market. They're a very vulnerable population."
Many Mexicans may expect their stay in the United States to be temporary and so they are in no hurry to forsake Mexico. But eventually, reality sets in. Years from now, they'll find themselves owning homes, paying taxes and integrated into the culture, with kids who work in offices and grandkids who attend college. While they were making other plans, they will have assimilated and lived the American dream.
And we'll all be better for it.