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Immigrant Integration: the American Experience

An address by Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Tamar Jacoby to a meeting of the Stockholm Network

Immigrant integration—or absorption or assimilation—is an old and familiar story in the United States. So much so that one of our greatest historians, Oscar Handlin, began his greatest book by declaring: "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that immigrants were American history [and that to tell their story fully would require] setting down the whole history of the United States." The immigrant experience is also an intimate story for most people in the United States. We're almost all the children of immigrants, and we all know something of "the melting pot."

Yet, for all this, it is instructive to go to Europe and compare notes with those who are now also dealing with issues of immigration and immigrant absorption. The metaphor that comes to my mind is two people commiserating outside of a clinic. Not that immigration is necessarily a complaint, and certainly not an illness. On the contrary, in the right number and under the right circumstances, immigration is a great boon to the receiving country—to its economy and its spirit. But the influx does sometimes come with some aches and pains—if only growing pains—and plainly many countries are facing those aches and pains today.

The good news is that assimilation is going pretty well these days in the United States. Whether in fact this is true is a much disputed and much monitored question—and rightly so. After all, with about a million legal and illegal immigrants coming into the country every year, if they're not assimilating, we're heading for real trouble. But most of the evidence I see supports a degree of optimism.

Obviously, the first component of absorption is economic. It's not the be-all and end-all. You can be doing all right economically and still not be fully integrated. But it's certainly the first building block. As I read the economic data, on this score, the glass is at least half full.

Most immigrants who come to America come to work. Most don't get welfare—they are not entitled to it for the first five to ten years. They know from other immigrants who have preceded them from their regions of origin whether or not work is available. Communications are very good now between American cities and the little villages of Latin America. If there aren't many jobs to be had, few immigrants make the trip. After all, if you're going to be unemployed, it's much better to unemployed at home than in the United States. It's usually a lot warmer at home and much less expensive to live, and you're usually surrounded by a network of supportive family and friends. So even though, technically, three-quarters of American immigrant visas are given out on the basis of family ties, almost every foreigner who comes to the United States gets a job—or two or three jobs—and works hard at it. Indeed, Hispanic males—and Hispanics account for about half the foreign-born in the United States—have the highest labor-force participation rates of any group in the country.

Now of course it's true that many immigrants are poor and the jobs they do are often the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs going: jobs that native-born Americans don't want to do, like busboy and chambermaid and assembly-line worker in a meat-processing plant. But these people at the bottom of the economic ladder are only one component of the vast flow of immigrants that has been coming to America in recent decades. America has accepted a lot of people at the top end of the economic ladder such as nurses, engineers, and entrepreneurs. About a quarter of today's newcomers have less than nine years of schooling but another quarter have university degrees—about the same percentage as the native-born. When you mix this second group's educational background with the phenomenal personal drive that most immigrants bring, it can prove an unbeatable combination. Just spend some time in Silicon Valley, where foreign-born scientists account for a third of the scientific workforce and Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs run a quarter of the high-tech companies.

The poverty and social backgrounds of many of today's newcomers are, of course, a cause for some concern. There's no question that, like many European nations, the United States today is basically a middle-class country importing a new lower class. That's the point, really, or a big part of the point: America no longer has a lower class, and it turns out that it needs one. But that doesn't necessarily mean these immigrants aren't going to be absorbed by the economy or do well for themselves by it, because generally they do. In fact, by the time the average immigrant has been in the United States for 10 or 15 years, he or she is usually making more than the average native-born American.

Which brings us to the second component of integration: How are the immigrants' children faring? This is the critical question. After all, the first generation is always transitional. They always live between two worlds, and if they arrive as adults, they never fully integrate. And to some degree, in America today, it's too soon to tell how the second generation is doing. Nevertheless, the evidence is beginning to trickle in, and to me it looks a lot more positive than negative.

Troubling signs do exist. Those who were born abroad—or whose parents were—often start at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. They certainly go to some of the worst schools in the country —failing, overcrowded inner-city schools, where many of the native-born students disdain learning and scorn mainstream success. And yes, some second-generation immigrant kids catch this bad attitude from their schoolmates.

But, as a group, these immigrant children come home with a superb report card. One important study conducted over the last decade in San Diego and Miami found that whatever country they come from, across the board, these students work harder than their native- born classmates. They do an average two hours of homework a night compared with the "normal" 30 minutes. They aspire to greater achievement than American-born students. They get better grades, and they drop out far less often - between a third and half as often. The second generation is likely to outstrip their parents educationally and economically, vindicating the parents' urge to take the risk of coming to the United States to make a better life for their families.

The third key component of assimilation is the question of language. Are today's immigrants learning to speak English? This is an issue of huge concern in the United States—it is probably the greatest fear of those who worry that assimilation is not working—and there is no question, there is undoubtedly a lot more Spanish in the air today than there used to be 20 or 30 years ago. There are signs in Spanish just about everywhere you go. Politicians in heavily immigrant cities and at the federal level are falling all over themselves to learn Spanish. Even corporate America is catching the bug, spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on advertising in Spanish and even Mandarin Chinese. So it would be easy to surmise that immigrants are not learning English, particularly not Hispanic immigrants, who often live in large enclaves of other Spanish-speaking people, where, some argue, you do not need English to get by.

But when you start to look at some real evidence, it turns out that the conventional wisdom driving people to campaign and advertise in Spanish is quite wrong. According to the Census, about 10 percent of the US population now lives in a household where Spanish is spoken. That sounds like a fairly large number but it turns out to be quite misleading, because for the Census Bureau, even one Spanish speaker—and in many cases, it's an elderly grandparent—is enough to get a family classified as Spanish-speaking. Yet within those households, 85 percent of the kids and 70 percent of the working-age adults speak English well or very well.

This has nothing to do with language classes. America doesn't provide much in the way of language classes. It's mainly about the power and reach of American pop culture. About 60 percent of today's new immigrants come to the United States speaking English well or very well—it's hard to avoid it in the world today, even in a poor village in rural Mexico. Despite the travesty that is bilingual education, virtually everyone who grows up in America eventually learns English. According to the second-generation study, by the end of high school, 98 percent of today's immigrants' children speak and understand English well or very well, and nine out of ten prefer it to their mother tongues.

There are some other important ways that people measure assimilation. Home-ownership is a good indicator that means immigrants are putting down roots and investing in them—as are citizenship and intermarriage—and on all those measures in America today the indications range from pretty good to astonishing.

Let's look first at home-ownership. True, as those who are pessimistic about assimilation are quick to tell you, many recent immigrants are anything but settled. They go back and forth to the old country. They often leave their families at home and maintain strong ties to the old world. But after a while, they settle down. They ask their families to join them or they marry someone they've met in America; and within 20 years, 60 percent of them are homeowners. And by the time they've been in the United States for 25 years, they're actually more settled than native-born Americans—a significantly higher share of them own their own homes.

Similarly, with citizenship. True, today, unlike in the past, it is possible for people from many countries to maintain dual citizenship—and with it, perhaps, troublingly dual or conflicting loyalties. True, naturalization is a slow, gradual process. Among those who arrived in the years since 1990, less than 10 percent have become citizens. But among those who have been in the United States since 1970—as many as 80 percent of them are naturalized. The point is clear: If you stay, you eventually join—today, as in the past, you eventually graduate from sojourner to member.

Finally - saving the most stunning numbers for last - there is the ethnic intermarriage rate. Just to give some perspective, until very recently the black-white intermarriage rate in the United States was well under 5 percent but, when it comes to US-born Asians and US-born Hispanics, between a third and a half marry someone of a different ethnicity and by the third generation, according to some demographers, the rates are over 50 percent for both groups.

Naturally, none of these measures really capture the ineffable that is the essence of integration—the sense of fully belonging in a new land and a new culture. Do today's immigrants feel they are truly Americans? Do they place their loyalty to the things we all share as a nation above their loyalties to their groups and their particular ethnicities? Well, relatively few people do, even among the native-born. And the mainstream culture hardly encourages it. Many Americans themselves no longer know what it means to be American. Our schools teach at best a travesty of American history, distorted by political correctness and the excesses of multiculturalism and, even in the wake of September 11, few leaders have tried to evoke more than a fuzzy, feel-good enthusiasm for America.

So there's no question that today's immigrants are at a disadvantage compared to yesterday's when it comes to what some people call "patriotic assimilation." But this is as much the nation's fault as it is the fault of immigrants. America is full of self-styled ethnic "leaders" and ethnic-studies professors and ethnic marketers fomenting chauvinism and divisiveness—most of them second- or third- or fourth-generation. But your average, hard-working immigrant is only baffled by identity politics. Today's migrants, like yesterday's, want to make it in America, not live in apart in anger and alienation. Their children may be a different matter and we have to reach out to their children in a different way. But given half a chance, there's no one more patriotic than a new immigrant. You should have seen the flags flying in the Mexican-American neighborhoods in the wake of 9/11. According to one of the largest and most comprehensive national surveys of Latinos, conducted by the Washington Post, 84 percent believe it is "important" or "very important" for immigrants "to change so that they blend into the larger society, as in the idea of the melting pot."

So a picture is beginning to emerge here. It's a mixed picture and, to a significant extent, the jury is still out. But whatever question marks remain, today's new American immigrants are not spawning a new "rainbow underclass." Today's immigrants are not tomorrow's blacks. There are a lot of reasons for this but by and large, the immigrant integration story that's developing in America today is a success story. If you have any doubts, just spend some time among the Mexican-American middle class in a place like Houston, Texas, or with the first-generation Chinese-Americans - and there are quite a few of them - who sit on the board of overseers that runs the California state university system.

So the question is what can be done, whether in Europe or in America, to encourage and assist immigrant integration. But before I get to that, I want to consider the parallel—or, more precisely, what is parallel and what isn't—between America and Europe. Certainly, Americans have been dealing with this for a lot longer. This does not mean that we are necessarily better at it: People tackling an issue for the first time often bring a combination of energy and ideas that's missing among people who have been grappling with a problem forever. But certainly, there are some factors that make this issue a little easier in America.

It helps that there really is no such thing as a hereditary American in the way that there are in effect hereditary Frenchmen and hereditary Germans. America has always been a place where foreigners could show up and participate—maybe not on an equal basis, but still participate— and in most cases, they eventually found they were accepted as full members.

It also helps that we don't have—and never have had - an established state religion. So neither your religion nor your ethnicity is an a priori obstacle to integration. Comparing the current situations in Europe and the United States, Americans are fortunate that the group that happens to be coming in the largest number, Latin Americans, have a long tradition of cultural and biological mixing—what they call mestizaje. The quintessential feature of the culture they come from is the way it blends Spanish and Indian and, in some cases, African elements. So they mix easily and comfortably, and in this, they're very different from Muslims, who come from a very different tradition and often have a different attitude toward assimilation. Finally, unlike in Europe, crime is not a particular problem among American immigrants, and even in these relatively sour economic times, the unemployment rate in the United States is nothing like unemployment rates in Europe.

So there are a lot of ways in which I think we have it easier. And it's quite possible that the differences between the two continents make the American experience completely irrelevant in Europe.

Immigration policy ought to be based on work

The primary criterion for whom to let in ought to be who is coming to do a job that needs doing and that native-born people don't tend to want to do. Sure, humanitarian concerns have an effect on policy. Family reunification has a place and so, of course, does helping refugees. But the main reason people move from one country to another is to improve their lot, usually economically, and the only real, enduring interest a foreign country has in accepting them is if they're going to contribute. So let's recognize this and make it the basis of policy.

Besides, the more of a premium a country can place on economic migrants—the more clearly it acknowledges those who are economic migrants and the more access it gives them to its labor markets—the better immigrant integration will work. People who work establish roots and relationships. People who work learn the language. People who work eventually better themselves. And people who work earn the respect of their fellow countrymen. Now, as I say, this is a point I spend a lot of time trying to press home, where our essentially family-driven system gets us in trouble because of the way it's out of sync with our labor needs. But if anything, the principle seems even more relevant in America than in Europe. Why not recognize that whatever the political circumstances in countries like Turkey and Afghanistan, many of the migrants from those places are coming to Europe to work and make a better life for themselves? Recognize this, let them work—and reap the rewards, as working helps them to assimilate.

Too much government assistance is a mistake

Refugees who for one reason or another can't work may need some help from the government, but this isn't true for most economic migrants—and for them, assistance can be as much a curse as a blessing. All too often, welfare discourages work and the assimilation that inevitably comes with it. In the case of government housing, whether in accommodation centers or elsewhere, the supposedly helping hand of the state encourages segregation. Too warm a welcome creates a false incentive for other would-be migrants, luring more people into the country than can productively work and integrate there. And it only leads the native-born to look down on the migrants who receive it, further adding to the difficulty of assimilating.

Of course, all of this begs the question: How much is too much? And I'm not against providing some basic services—whether emergency services or other necessities, as well as any services that spur assimilation. (I'm all for better public schools, for example, and vocational apprenticeships and classes that help people learn to help themselves—teaching them financial literacy and that sort of thing. In some cases, I'm even at the generous end of the spectrum on services. I'm all for allowing even illegal immigrants' children to go to public universities, for example—a big issue in the United States right now.) But I don't think the United States made a mistake in barring immigrants from receiving welfare, and to the degree that's possible in Europe, I urge European policymakers to consider it.

Short-sighted, unrealistic laws that force otherwise legitimate migrants to live underground are only going to slow their absorption

This is only common sense. The law-abiding are more likely to fit into society and be accepted there than people who live outside the law and adopt the habits of law-breakers.

The problem in the United States is that although a million immigrants come into the country each year to work, the law only recognizes two-thirds that number—and the other third are forced to sneak in and then to live like fugitives. Not only does this criminalize badly needed productive activity, it also makes an ass of the law - and creates all kinds of obstacles to assimilation. And I'm sure this must be true in Europe, too, where so many who want to work are forced to work illegally, and even those seeking asylum often start their new lives as outlaws. If they are going to come anyway, far better to recognize reality and create legitimate channels.

It is not a mistake to make demands of immigrants

Demands that they learn the language in their new, adopted country; demands that they learn the manners and mores; demands that they eventually become citizens. This is not racist or unduly nationalistic, although this sort of incorporation effort should be as positive as possible—a matter not of sanctions and punishment but of highlighting the allure of the new country. You ask and encourage people to learn the ways of a culture because those ways are the keys to success there. If you're going to require, say, learning the language, you ought to provide and pay for classes. (The government does not need to provide them, but it ought to create incentives so that others do.) This will only work to the degree that newcomers are also allowed to maintain some degree of attachment to the culture they come from.

Don't ask people to obliterate their old loyalties

America does not ask immigrants to forget about their ethnicity. On the contrary, anyone who knows what makes America great knows that Italian-Americans will be Italian, Jewish Americans will be Jewish - and in the 21st century, Latino Americans will be Latino. What we ask, or have asked in the past, is that people learn to balance the two sides of their identity—the ethnic side and the American side. Traditionally, what this meant for most groups was that at home and on the weekends and in your neighborhood—i.e., in private—you lived your ethnic background, or were free to. But when it came to the workday or the workplace or anything public or official, you were a citizen among citizens and you could be accepted as a full member there in the public sphere, no matter what you did or were at home.

It's true that this traditional balance is out of kilter in the United States today: Our obsessive and insistent multiculturalism has disrupted the age-old balance. We may not be requiring enough of our new immigrants today—or holding out enough in the way of a coherent idea of what it means to be American and this is a crucial challenge for the United States going forward.

But immigrant absorption cannot work without this balance, because you can not expect people to simply give up who they are - to throw away the habits they have grown up with and the age-old loyalties that help to make them strong. But you also can't hope to assimilate them unless you permit and encourage full membership. So you have to come up with a notion of membership that allows for some kind of hyphenated existence that isn't second-class. At least that's the formula in America.

So the great question, of course, is whether any of this can work in Europe. I don't think there's any doubt that it is what has made America what it is today. From Anglo-Saxon political traditions to Jewish humor, from the German work ethic to Irish eloquence: Just about everything that makes America great was brought here by an immigrant. But Europe is a very different place, with little or no tradition of immigrant absorption and where people are already anxious that for one reason or another—globalization, modernization—the traditional fabric and character of the society is being eroded. It is easy to understand those concerns and to see why immigration poses a harder challenge in Europe.

In the long run, however, it's a challenge that cannot be avoided. For demographic reasons, because of changing labor needs, thanks to globalization and the ever-accelerating interconnectedness of the world today: Immigration is Europe's future whether she likes it or not. Better to recognize it, regularize it, bring it above ground—and get on with the hard business of helping the newcomers assimilate.

Presented in Madrid, Spain in June 2002


Center for Race and Ethnicity.


Tamar Jacoby


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