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Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States

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Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States

October 1, 2009

The year 2007 marked an economic turning point in the United States. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the nation’s economic output peaked late in the year and then began to contract. This development affected immigration in two important ways: immigrants began arriving in fewer numbers than they have since the 1960s; and those immigrants who not only arrived but stayed fell further behind the native-born population economically. Economic assimilation declined even among immigrants who arrived more than a decade ago, indicating that differences between that cohort and the native-born population widened.

This report, the second in an ongoing series, takes advantage of newly released U.S. Census Bureau data from 2007 to measure changes in an index describing the state of economic, civic, and cultural assimilation of immigrants to the United States. It also explores in detail two of the factors used to compute the index: immigrants’ English-language ability and naturalization rates, both of which have been affected by the reduced inflow and increased outflow ofrecent immigrants. Because legal adult immigrants who have been here less than five years cannot become citizens and are unlikely to have mastered English in so short a period, the economic downturn is having an effect on all three assimilation indexes: economic, of course; but also cultural assimilation, of which English skills are an important component; and civic assimilation, of which citizenship is an important component.

Ironically, the effect of the reduction in the numbers of immigrants arriving and staying has been to offset the impact on the assimilation index of gradually declining levels of English skills upon arrival and afterward as well as lower rates of naturalization. The reason for this is that recent arrivals differ most from natives, and thus their absence raises the collective assimilation index values of immigrants who have been here longer.

The Manhattan Institute introduced its first summary measures of immigrant assimilation in the United States in 2008. Civic Report No. 53, “Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States,” presented a series of index measures describing the degree of similarity between foreign- and native-born residents of the United States between 1900 and 2006. The index rises only when the foreign-born population becomes less distinct from the native-born. In net terms, there has been no change in the assimilation index between 2006 and 2007. The composite measure, which considers all three categories of indicators—economic, cultural, and civic—remained at the same level. None of those three separately showed any variation from 2006 to 2007.

Analysis of English-language skills among immigrants between 1900 and 2007 reveals several important patterns. The key findings are:

  • The proportion of non-English-speaking immigrants peaked in 1910. In that year, nearly a third of all immigrants could not speak English (once again, excluding those born in English-speaking nations). Only 10 percent of immigrants fall in that category today, but another 20 percent report that their English skills, while existent, are poor—a category not included in the early Census enumerations.
  • About half of all immigrants report speaking English “very well,” and this proportion has not changed much since 1980. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of all immigrants report either that they do not speak English or that their English skills are poor. These statistics exclude immigrants from English-speaking nations.
  • Immigrant children acquire English skills much more rapidly than their parents. More than 80 percent of immigrants who arrive in the United States by the age of seven speak English very well as adults, while only 30 percent of those who arrive as adults are eventually able to do so.
  • Recent immigrants—especially Mexican-Americans—are acquiring English-language skills more slowly than their predecessors In the early twentieth century, roughly 75 percent of immigrants who arrived without knowing English learned the language within twenty years. In more recent years, this proportion has moved closer to 60 percent. While the English skills of Mexican immigrants are lower than those of other immigrant groups, their apparent rate of progress is higher. But this finding might simply reflect the higher rates of return migration of those who would not be expected to have learned English.
  • As the immigrant population grows, the English skills of newly arrived immigrants tend to decline. Such a pattern is evident in the early twentieth century and in more recent data. Specifically, the proportion of foreign-born residents who cannot speak English increased from 9 percent in 2000 to a peak of 11 percent in 2006; the proportion with poor English skills increased from 19 percent to 20 percent in that same period. Immigrants don’t have as great a need to learn English when they have an extensive network of fellow immigrants on whom they can rely.

Analysis of naturalization rates between 1900 and 2007 reveals several important patterns:

  • English-language requirements do not deter would-be citizens. In the past and the present, virtually all immigrants interested in pursuing citizenship have acquired sufficient command of the English language to meet the official standard.
  • Immigrants continue to value citizenship highly. The evidence for this is the rates at which immigrants became citizens, which were approximately the same in the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. These figures were stable in spite of significant changes in naturalization law, many of which imposed longer waiting periods before a legal immigrant could become a citizen.
  • There is some evidence that naturalization rates of the most recent immigrant cohorts are slowing. While this may reflect the high number of recent immigrants who are illegal, and thus ineligible for citizenship, it could also reflect the cumulative impact of longer waiting periods.
  • Mexican immigrants become citizens at a lower rate than other immigrant groups.
  • The 1986 immigration amnesty appears to have had a moderately positive effect on naturalization rates but resulted in very little improvement in language skills.

Updated information on the assimilation of immigrants in the United States, along with the detailed analyses of language acquisition and citizenship, can help distinguish the success stories in American immigration from the failures. The challenge of any attempt at immigration reform will be to preserve success while remediating failure.