America's Immigration Advantage

By Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco
Monday, March 6, 2006

As Congress gears up for another round of immigration debate, it is instructive to place the recent American experience in context. How do we compare to the other side of the Atlantic, which is wrestling with its own immigration dilemmas? There are three major areas of difference between this country and Europe.

First, in Europe, the combination of the welfare state and the job ceiling that immigrants face is creating a huge problem for the second generation, which receives fairly good schooling but then crashes into a wall of discrimination and racism in the labor market. Algerian French citizens with good French educations simply cannot find jobs commensurate with their educational credentials and achievements, because of their last names or physical appearance. One cannot underestimate the frustration this produces.

In the United States there is a powerful segmentation in the labor market according to one's education, but for many immigrants moving to this country, America can be a dream realized when it comes to achieving educational success and rewards in the job market.

Furthermore, about a third of all immigrants arrive in this country with college degrees, a "gift" in free human capital to the U.S. economy estimated to be in the order of $50 billion per year. Every fall when I was teaching "Latino Cultures" at Harvard College, I would ask the 100 or so eager undergraduates, "How many of you are immigrants or the children of immigrants?" Some two-thirds would raise their hands. While the United States surely has problems educating immigrant youngsters and easing their transition into the labor market, they do not approach those in Europe, where unemployment among the second generation approaches 50 percent in some cities.

Second, in most European countries formal immigration stopped in the early 1970s, and immigration is now mostly driven by asylum-seeking and marriage. In Europe today immigration is patterned by kinship and social structures that favor arranged marriages and marriage within the group. It is common for second-generation Kurdish or Afghan girls in Stockholm to end up marrying cousins back in Kurdistan or Afghanistan so that the men can migrate to Europe. This has two immediate effects: It prevents the immigrants from crossing a most cherished threshold of social integration -- marriage with people of the new country -- and it replenishes the cultural traditions of the old country as newly arrived villagers settle in European cities.

In contrast, immigrants in the United States have always, over many years, gravitated to marriage outside their own groups (a dynamic sometimes called "ethnic flight") -- from Jews marrying Christians and Japanese marrying whites to Latinos marrying African Americans.

Third, in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Germany, immigrants have no place in the cultural narrative of the nation. In the United States, immigration is at the center of the quasi-sacred narrative accounting for how we came to be the country we are today. The United States is one of only a handful of advanced democracies that can claim immigration as both history and destiny. Immigrants built the nation, and the immigrant second generation is now the fastest-growing demographic sector of the population. Today immigrants proudly enter the mainstream through hyphenated identities: We talk about Mexican Americans, Haitian Americans, Irish Americans and Chinese Americans as natural categories of belonging to the American tapestry. When I was teaching in Paris a few years ago, I asked my students, "Do you talk about Tunisian-French, Algerian-French or Turkish-Germans here in Europe?" There was an uncomfortable silence. "You don't understand; we are all French," was the polite answer of a shy graduate student.

Immigrants thus face a double bind: They are asked to be French while not really allowed to fully join the new society in terms of jobs and the opportunity structure.

In the United States, the current anxiety is over illegal immigration. In Europe the continuing concerns are cultural practices -- within-group marriage, arranged marriages, free speech, equality between the sexes in Muslim immigrant communities, and the separation of religion from the political process -- all of which, when combined with enduring European xenophobia and labor market discrimination, will prove to be much harder to address, let alone fix.

The writer, co-founder of the Harvard Immigration Project, is now a university professor and co-director of immigration studies at New York University. He is the co-author of "Children of Immigration."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company