By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Immigrants of the past quarter-century have been assimilating in the United States at a notably faster rate than did previous generations, according to a study released today.
Modern-day immigrants arrive with substantially lower levels of English ability and earning power than those who entered during the last great immigration wave at the turn of the 20th century. The gap between today's foreign-born and native populations remains far wider than it was in the early 1900s and is particularly large in the case of Mexican immigrants, the report said.
The study, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, used census and other data to devise an assimilation index to measure the degree of similarity between the United States' foreign-born and native-born populations. These included civic factors, such as rates of U.S. citizenship and service in the military; economic factors, such as earnings and rates of homeownership; and cultural factors, such as English ability and degree of intermarriage with U.S. citizens. The higher the number on a 100-point index, the more an immigrant resembled a U.S. citizen.
In general, the longer an immigrant lives in the United States, the more characteristics of native citizens he or she tends to take on, said Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor at Duke University and author of the study. During periods of intense immigration, such as from 1870 to 1920, or during the immigration wave that began in the 1970s, new arrivals tend to drag down the average assimilation index of the foreign-born population as a whole.
The report found, however, that the speed with which new arrivals take on native-born traits has increased since the 1990s. As a result, even though the foreign population doubled during that period, the newcomers did not drive down the overall assimilation index of the foreign-born population. Instead, it held relatively steady from 1990 to 2006.
"This is something unprecedented in U.S. history," Vigdor said. "It shows that the nation's capacity to assimilate new immigrants is strong."
A possible explanation, Vigdor said, was that the economic expansion of the 1990s created more job opportunities at all levels, speeding the economic integration of immigrants. It could also be that because today's immigrants begin at such a low starting point, "it's easier to make progress to the next level up" of integration than it would be if the immigrant had to improve on an already high level of integration.
Vigdor also said his findings included cause for concern: most notably, the fact that the 2006 assimilation index of 28 is less than the previous low point of 42 in 1920. The difference indicates the substantial change in the composition of today's immigrants compared with earlier immigration waves.
Although new arrivals at the turn of the 20th century were most likely to be eastern and southern Europeans, he said, "one of the top five origin countries was England, and close to 100 percent of them spoke English." By contrast, the majority of immigrants today are Mexicans and other Latin Americans, with the next largest share coming from a range of developing nations with languages other than English.
The overall assimilation index also masks big differences between immigrants from certain countries. Mexicans, for example have an index of 13, while Vietnamese were at 41. And although immigrants who arrived as children tend to be nearly identical to their U.S.-born counterparts, apart from their lower rates of citizenship, those who come from Mexico are less assimilated and have higher incidences of teenage pregnancy and incarceration.
A major reason for these disparities in assimilation levels may be the high percentage of Mexican immigrants who are in the country illegally, Vigdor said. When only cultural factors are considered, Mexicans score almost as high as Vietnamese and higher than immigrants from countries such as India and China, which tend to have a high rate of immigration to the United States.
"If you're in the country illegally, a lot of the avenues of assimilation are cut off to you," he said. "There are lot of jobs you can't get, and you can't become a citizen."