Hispanic immigrants are assimilating just as quickly as earlier groups

January 28, 2013
Today's nativists ain't got nothin' on Bill the Butcher. (Miramax Films)
Today's nativists ain't got nothin' on Bill the Butcher. (Miramax Films)

Proponents of immigration reform tend to spend a lot of time emphasizing the need for immigrants to assimilate into American culture.

One of the provisions in the Senate's bipartisan plan on immigration reform tasks immigrants with "learning English and the basics about America's history" before attaining permanent residency, as Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) emphasized Monday afternoon when the senators unveiled their blueprint. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that this was a first in American history.

Immigration reform critics often cite this as a major sticking point for reform. Some, like the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, have argued that the latest wave of Latino immigration is fundamentally unlike waves of European workers.

But it just isn't so. In 2007, the political scientists Jack Citrin, Amy Lerman, Michael Murakami and Kathryn Pearson decided to test Huntington's theory against the available evidence about Latino assimilation. They found no evidence whatsoever that Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are assimilating more slowly than did previous waves of immigrants.

Take language acquisition: Contrary to popular belief and Adam Sandler films, Latino immigrants acquire English as quickly as, or more quickly than, Asian and European immigrants.Although Mexican immigrants lagged behind on language acquisition in 1980, the gap was closed by 2000, the researchers found.

First-generation Mexican immigrants still lag behind on learning English, but second-generation Americans, including those who live with their first-generation parents, acquire English just as fast as do Asian or European immigrants. (Non-Latino second-generation immigrants acquire English even faster. Filipino immigrants beat everyone, perhaps owing to the Philippines' half-century under U.S. sovereignty.):


Source: Citrin et al.

This translates over to policy. Non-Hispanic Americans tend to support making English the official language of the United States by large margins, and first- and second-generation Latino immigrants tend to be more skeptical about making English official. But by the third generation, the gap disappears:

My point -- and the authors' -- isn't to champion the movement to make English our official language or suggest that rising Hispanic support for such a law is a good or bad thing. But the research on third-generation Hispanics reveals a surprising point of convergence with  other racial groups who favor language assimilation by making English official.

And this just scratches the surface of Citrin's and his colleagues' findings on the assimilation of Latino immigrants. "Hispanics appear to be no more or less religious than whites," they write. "Nor do they exhibit a lower commitment to the importance of working hard to get ahead." There just aren't any differences to be found.

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Sarah Kliff · January 28, 2013