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New York Daily News


New York City and the Genius of Immigrant Assimilation

October 14, 2009

By Jacob L. Vigdor

Do you remember John Rocker?

Most of you who do would probably just as soon forget. For those who don’t recognize the name, Rocker was an infamous pitcher for the Atlanta Braves who made about 8 million enemies 10 years ago with some nasty comments about New York City. “The biggest thing I don’t like about New York,” he said, “are the foreigners.”

Rocker retired from baseball about six years ago and lives in Atlanta now. For a person who doesn’t like foreigners, that’s an odd place to retire. The Atlanta area is now home to more than 600,000 immigrants. What’s more, 80% of those immigrants speak a language other than English at home, and only a third of them are naturalized citizens of the United States. Rocker might consider relocating to a city where the immigrants are more likely to speak English and are much more likely to show their allegiance to this country by becoming citizens.

That’s right. John Rocker should move to New York.

New York is famous for its history as a magnet for immigrants. And now, it’s clearer than ever that the city should also be renowned for being a place where immigrants rapidly travel the path to becoming Americans. That’s one finding from a report — issued last week by the Manhattan Institute - tracking the assimilation of immigrants in the United States between 1900 and 2007, paying special attention to foreigners’ ability to speak English and their progress toward citizenship.

Half of the foreign-born residents of the New York metro area are naturalized citizens. In the rest of the country, the figure is just 40%. Immigrants learn English faster in New York. Among adult immigrants who arrived in the past five years, 40% of New Yorkers speak English very well, versus 35% in the rest of the country. Among recently arrived foreign-born kids, the difference is even stronger: 45% versus 36%.

What makes New York City so adept at integrating immigrants into the mainstream? The city has a few things going for it. The city’s immigrants come from every corner of the globe, and no single group makes up more than 12% of the foreign-born population. That makes it tough for any single immigrant group to form an isolated enclave. Yes, the city has ethnic neighborhoods and always has, but it is both easy and common for the residents of those neighborhoods to head elsewhere to work or shop. And even in an ethnic enclave, you’re going to encounter native-born Americans and representatives of other cultures. The city is a public place, where residents have no choice but to share experiences. As immigrants and natives share experiences, they become more alike. Assimilation happens.

It’s a different story in the nation’s “new” immigrant destinations. In places like Atlanta, the shared experiences born of population density don’t happen all that often. We don’t walk through one neighborhood on the way to another, or hop in a subway car already half-full of people who live a mile or two up the line. We play with our kids in our backyards, not in public parks with other families. We live in homogenized (and often gated) communities and travel in the privacy of our own cars. No wonder the immigrants living in these cities have a harder time adopting the norms and customs of Americans.

Gated communities and private cars aren’t the only obstacle to assimilating in modern America. Official policy plays a huge role. A century ago, if you made it past Ellis Island you were in - and on a five-year path to citizenship. Today, the legal avenues to residency are much narrower, and the path takes much longer. Immigrants who wish to assimilate benefit from having a strong network of legal advocates and local institutions to help them navigate the process. New York has these things. Places like Atlanta are scurrying to catch up.

New York, in the end, is a place where any person, from any remote corner of the globe, can find a steady path to the American mainstream. Maybe even John Rocker.

Original Source:



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