This year, Republicans leaders had great hopes of regaining support from Hispanic voters with presidential candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, whose ties to the community and views on immigration equipped them to woo this fast-growing demographic. Then came Donald Trump promising he would “take our country back” from the Mexican immigrants, at times calling many of them "criminals" and "rapists." Trump's sudden and seemingly unshakable popularity showed rivals that anti-immigrant ideas still excite large swaths of the GOP base.
Which is how the past few months became a fireworks display of anti-immigration sentiment in some parts of the electorate. Other candidates piled on with talk of border fences, deportation and ending birthright citizenship. The messages tapped into a timeworn fear that unchecked immigration will erase what is American about America.
"I think we need to insist that folks who come here come here legally, learn English, adopt our values, roll up our sleeves and get to work," declared Bobby Jindal, Louisiana governor and GOP presidential candidate, in August. A Pew poll earlier this year showed that 71 percent of Republicans believe immigrants make crime worse; 81 percent believe most immigrants don't want to assimilate; and 74 percent say immigrants aren't learning English fast enough.
But these beliefs just aren't backed up by the data.
Last week, the National Academies of Sciences released the most authoritative report on the subject in nearly two decades. A rockstar panel of sociologists, led by Harvard professor Mary Waters, assembled everything that we know about how the foreign-born are assimilating into American society. Their findings may come as a surprise to those who believe today's immigrants pose a serious, emerging threat to American society.
America’s immigrants, as it turns out, are doing alright.
The report presents a catalog of current data on the foreign-born, but perhaps its most valuable contribution is the historical context. For a nation that takes pride in its immigrant heritage, America has an tradition of denigrating newcomers. As the report points out:
Many descendants of immigrants who are fully integrated into U.S. society remember the success of their immigrant parents and grandparents but forget the resistance they encountered—the riots where Italians were killed, the branding of the Irish as criminals who were taken away in “paddy wagons,” the anti-Semitism that targeted Jewish immigrants, the racist denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants, and the shameful internment of Japanese American citizens.
This historical amnesia contributes to the tendency to celebrate the nation’s success in integrating past immigrants and to worry that somehow the most recent immigrants will not integrate and instead pose a threat to American society and civic life.
Immigration has of course changed in recent decades, both in both complexion and in the kinds of challenges that newcomers face. But in many of the ways that matter, the situation is the same as it ever was: immigrants quietly striving — and mostly succeeding.
Immigrants are picking up English just as quickly as their predecessors
No doubt there is more and more Spanish in the media these days, while more municipalities are offering bilingual services, or even bilingual ballots. Anxiety over the increasing prominence of other languages in American life is one reason that “Press 1 for English!” has become a popular chant at Trump rallies.
But immigrants are speaking English, too. In fact, they are much more fluent in English than ever bfore. “[T]he data on English proficiency indicate that today’s immigrants are actually learning English faster than their predecessors,” the report notes.
In part this is because English has spread internationally, and immigrants are much more likely to have learned it in their native countries. Among recent legal immigrants, nearly 40 percent say they had taken at least one class in English before coming over, and 48 percent are proficient in the language.
American schools are also doing a good job at teaching English to immigrant children — perhaps too good of a job. By the third generation, most descendants of immigrants cannot speak the native language of their grandparents. This has been the standard pattern for the past 100 years, and it still holds true today, mostly.
An exception to that rule exists among Latinos, who are more successful at passing on their mother tongues to their children. A 2006 study of Mexican Americans in Southern California showed that 17 percent of third-generation Mexicans knew how to speak Spanish “very well” (though only four percent spoke Spanish at home.)
To many, this lingering bilingualism can well be seen as an asset, an extra skill that sharpens minds and might give a leg up on the job market.
Immigrants tend to have more education than before
These days, the immigration debate orbits around two distinct clumps of people. As this chart from the report shows, a large number of the foreign-born lack high school diplomas, while another signifcant fraction hold advanced degrees.
This latter group is something of a new phenomenon. In the early 1900s, the United States saw a large influx of low-skilled workers from southern and eastern Europe. As the report notes, these newcomers had about four years of education on average, compared to eight years among the native-born.
But steadily, successive waves of immigrants have arrived with more and more schooling. About 28 percent of immigrants these days have bachelor's degrees or more, up from 19 percent in 1980.
People without a high school diploma still make up about 32 percent of the foreign-born (compared to only 11 percent of native-born adults) — but now immigrants are also more likely than the native-born to have post-graduate credentials. This is thanks to immigration policies in recent decades that have ushered in a cohort of highly-skilled workers.
Immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes — but they soon learn
In the Pew poll from this spring, fully half of respondents said they believe immigrants are making crime worse in the nation.
Only seven percent said immigrants are making crime better — which is what the research says is closer to the truth. Most studies show that immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes, and that neighborhoods with lots of immigrants tend to be safer ones. Some sociologists even argue that increased immigration is one reason that crime rates declined sharply in the past two decades.
One analysis of Census data from 2000 comparing men aged 18-39 showed that the native born are five times more likely to be in jail. The good-behavior gap exists for every ethnic group. Immigrants are some of the least criminal people in the U.S.
And yet, the perception persists that immigrants are up to no good, making trouble in the neighborhood. “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States,” Donald Trump said in July. “They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”
The report chided these kinds of statements, blaming them for keeping alive the misconception that the foreign-born are dangerous. “Today, the belief that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes is perpetuated by ‘issue entrepreneurs’ who promote the immigrant-crime connection in order to drive restrictionist immigration policy,” the panel wrote.
What the evidence actually shows is that immigrants have more to fear from the corrupting influence of American society than vice versa. By the second and third generation, the children of the foreign-born are picking up criminal habits, and their crime rates begin to catch up with that of their peers.
This is but one example of how assimilation can make immigrants worse off. Second-generation immigrants tend to be less healthy than their parents, and more obese. Often, learning to be an American also means picking up poor eating habits and a taste for crime.
Immigrants are more likely to have jobs than the native-born
Immigrants work. The report finds that between 2003 and 2013, 86 percent of foreign-born men were employed compared to 82-83 percent of native-born men. Low-skilled immigrants are particularly determined to find employment. The employment rate for immigrant men who haven’t finished high school was 84 percent during that time, compared to 58 percent for native-born high school dropouts.
“The high employment levels for the least educated immigrants indicates that employer demand for low-skilled labor remains high,” the sociologists write.
Whether these are jobs that have been taken from native-born workers is a harder question to answer. Some economists say that native-born Americans are increasingly reluctant to perform this kind of menial labor — meatpacking, construction, dishwashing. Others say there is evidence that immigrants drive down wages for low-skilled work.
Historically, immigrants have been adept at moving up from the lower ranks of American society. The dream of upward mobility is alive among today’s immigrants, 70 percent of whom say their children will be better off — less than half of native-born parents believe the same thing.
But the sociologists leave open the question of whether or not today’s immigrants will have the same opportunities as their predecessors. The labor market is more unequal than ever, and wages for low-skilled work are falling. The margin for error, they say, is thinner than ever:
While Italians, for instance, took three or four generations to reach educational parity with the general population of native-born whites, there was an abundance of jobs that paid a family wage for men with less than a college degree. Descendants of these immigrants had the luxury of time to catch up educationally with other Americans, and they did (Perlmann, 2005). Education is much more highly valued in today’s labor market, and the children of immigrants with low education must not only surpass their parents’ educational attainment but make large strides beyond them just to stay in place
And so, despite all the positive findings about the welfare of immigrants, the report sounds a cautionary note. Yes, immigrants are better equipped — wealthier and more educated — than ever before. But will that be enough for them to succeed?