Do immigrants assimilate or stay forever apart from American society? This question affects nearly all immigration issues, including family and employment-based immigration, both of which concern many Indian immigrants. A lack of consensus on the issue of assimilation has prevented action on broader immigration reform. In addressing the question of immigrants and assimilation it is useful to look at three areas: wage growth, education and English language acquisition.
Historical Concerns About Assimilation
Concerns about the assimilation of immigrants have been a key part of the debate over immigration for much of our nation’s history. Discussing the restrictions on immigration imposed by Congress in the 1920s, historian Oscar Handlin wrote, “The objections to further immigration from Italy and Poland reflected the objectors’ unfavorable observations of the Italians and the Poles they saw about them. The arguments that Greeks and Slovaks could not become good Americans rested on the premise that the Greeks and Slovaks in the United States had not become good Americans.”
Jeffery S. Passel, senior research associate, Pew Hispanic Center, has developed techniques to differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants in Census data and to track changes based on years in the country. Passel’s research on immigrant wage growth and other issues demonstrates how important it can be to determine legal status when examining data on assimilation.
Census data show legal immigrants experience significant wage gains over time, even surpassing the average family income of natives, in the case of naturalized citizens. But illegal immigrants do not show that type of income gain based on years in the United States. “Average family income for both legal immigrants and refugees in the U.S. for more that 10 years is only 2 to 3 percent below that of natives,” writes Passel. “For longer term naturalized citizen families, average family income is 23 percent higher than native income.” But the average income level of an illegal immigrant family remains well below the average native family (about 35 percent below) even among illegal immigrants in the country 10 years or longer.
Research that did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants still found significant wage growth among immigrants. Economists Harriet Duleep and Mark Regets found that after a decade in the United States the earnings gap between new immigrants and natives largely disappears, with immigrant wage growth faster than native (6.7 percent vs. 4.4 percent).
A similar story on legal immigrants can be seen in the Pew Hispanic Center’s analysis of Census data on education and immigrants. Overall, 32 percent of legal immigrants have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30 percent of natives and 15 percent of illegal immigrants.
What about those who did not finish high school (ages 18-24)? Among illegal immigrants, 49 percent did not graduate high school, compared to 21 percent of legal immigrants and 11 percent of natives. Even among illegal immigrants who completed high school, less than half went on to attend college.
In contrast, among immigrants and natives who have completed high school, more legal immigrants have gone on to attend a college than natives – 73 percent of legal immigrants vs. 70 percent of natives – according to Passel’s research.
Education levels for legal immigrants improve across generations, just as they have historically for Americans. “Turning to the data, educational assimilation appears alive and well,” according to Pia Orrenius, senior economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “High school dropout rates for immigrants improve across generations, dropping from 27 percent in the first generation to below the native average of 8.9 percent in the third generation.”
Do immigrants and their children learn English? Do they want to learn English? It’s possible many Americans believe the answer is “no.” The data suggest otherwise.
In the report The New Americans, produced by the National Research Council, only 3 percent of immigrants in the country 30 years or more reported not speaking English well in the 1990 Census. This illustrates that assimilation takes place. But also how important it is to make judgments on data that are longitudinal, since newly arriving immigrants can skew the totals.
The story is quite positive with the children of immigrants. According to a Pew Hispanic Center survey, 88 percent of second generation children from Latino immigrant families and 94 percent from the third generation said they spoke English very well.
Contrary to concerns Spanish-speaking immigrants will pass along to their children and grandchildren a proclivity to speak Spanish over English, research shows the opposite is true. A study by Frank Bean and Ruben Rumbaut (both University of California, Irvine) and Douglas Massey (Princeton University) found “Although the generational life expectancy of Spanish is greater among Mexicans in Southern California than other groups, its demise is all but assured by the third generation.”
Bean, Rumbaut and Massey concluded, “Based on an analysis of language loss over the generations, the study concludes that English has never been seriously threatened as the dominant language in America, nor is it under threat today.”
The conclusion one draws from the data is that today’s immigrants are indeed assimilating. As a group, they are gainfully employed and experience wage growth over time, education levels rise, and acquisition of the English language increases, particularly in the second generation. This does not mean all immigrants assimilate. But it does mean that, overall, the American “melting pot” continues to work.