Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
An extensive new report looks at the positive and negative outcomes of assimilation.
Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush recently remarked that the U.S. was headed towards “multiculturalism.” Such a society, where immigrants are isolated from the native population, prevents newcomers from assimilating into American culture—to their detriment, says Bush. Via The Huffington Post:
“We should not have a muticultural society ... America has done immigration so much better than the other countries because it's a set of values that people share, that defines our national identity—not race or ethnicity or where you come from. And when you create pockets of isolation—and in some cases, the assimilation process has been retarded because they slowed down—it's wrong ... So I think across the board, education, English—being able to speak English—a common language is important. We need to get back to that. We're creeping toward multiculturalism and that's the wrong approach.”
Bush’s claims are only partly correct. A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds that today’s immigrants are assimilating at the same rate as they have in the past, and that integration does improve their lives in some ways—though not all. Here’s how a news release about the report summarizes its findings:
As immigrants and their descendants become integrated into U.S. society, many aspects of their lives improve, including measurable outcomes such as educational attainment, occupational distribution, income, and language ability, but their well-being declines in the areas of health, crime, and family patterns.
Assimilation (or integration) is the process by which immigrant groups start resembling the native-born population of their host countries. It’s a two-way process, explains Harvard sociologist Mary Waters, chair of the committee that conducted the NAS study. On one hand, immigrants adjust to their new surroundings—they enroll their kids in school, participate in the workforce, and learn the language. On the other hand, natives of their host countries accept and adapt to them.
Greater participation in American society is a good thing. According to the report, it “implies movement toward parity in critical life opportunities with the native-born American majority.” But with time it changes many aspects of an immigrant’s life—some for better, and others for worse.
In general, children of foreign-born immigrants—a quarter of whom have at least a college-level education—are at par with or exceed the levels of education among kids of native-born parents. But certain groups of immigrants who have fewer years of schooling (10 years, on average) lag behind, such as those from Mexico and Central America. While these kids tend to have higher levels of education than their parents (12 years, on average), they’re still not at the level of native-born children.
Politicians like to grumble that immigrants don’t “speak American,” and polls indicate that most Americans agree that immigrants are not learning the language quickly enough. But the NAS report finds that today’s immigrants learn English at the same or faster rate than immigrants have in the past.
English-language skills unlock jobs with higher wages for immigrants, and improve academic performance of their kids. Immigrants understand this; 95 percent of them think learning English is important or even essential, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. Still, first-generation immigrants face language barriers, largely because of inadequacies in U.S. language training and educational institutions. Here’s the NAS report:
Funding for English as a Second Language classes has declined even as the population of English-language learners has grown. The U.S. education system is not currently equipped to handle the large numbers of English-language learners in the K-12 system—nearly 5 million students, 9 percent of all students—and this may stymie the integration prospects of many immigrants and their children
Employment, earnings, and jobs
Sixty-six percent of foreign-born workers participated in the U.S. labor force in 2014, compared to 62 percent of native-born workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among first-generation male immigrants, the employment rate is almost 90 percent, the NAS report finds.
Immigrant men with low education levels are more likely to be employed than their native counterparts. Children and grandchildren of immigrants working in low-wage jobs tend to climb higher in the labor market, but they still don’t get the same type of jobs as the children of U.S-born parents. On the other hand, highly skilled immigrants make up a fifth to a third of workers in science and technology jobs.
Foreign-born immigrants are more likely than native born ones to be poor (even as they’re more likely to be employed and tend to work for longer hours). But as they assimilate, they become richer, according to the report:
Among adults, the poverty rate overall declines over generations, from over 18 percent in the first generation to 13.6 percent in the second generation and 11.5 percent in the third.
Residential segregation and crime
New arrivals tend to live in neighborhoods more isolated from native-born white population, but this changes over time and with generations. That said, neighborhoods with larger clusters of immigrants tend to experience a lower rate of crime and violence than non-immigrant neighborhoods.
Immigrants, as a whole, are less likely to commit crime, and foreign-born immigrants are much less likely to be incarcerated than native born U.S. citizens. Subsequent generations, however, show crime rates similar to the U.S. native-born population.
Family patterns and health
First-generation immigrant families tend to experience lower divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates compared to U.S. native families. They also experience a lower likelihood of cardiovascular diseases, fewer chronic health conditions, lower infant mortality, lower obesity rates, and fewer learning disabilities than native-born Americans. All these advantages dissipate over time.
According to the report, the legal status of undocumented immigrants and racial discrimination toward immigrants of color play huge roles in stalling the assimilation of some groups into American society. (Low levels of naturalization also contribute.) Many obstacles to integration, it seems, are more a result of structural barriers and biases than “multiculturalism” or the ability of immigrants to adapt.