The 1965 Immigration Act literally changed the face of America, creating a much more diverse society and bringing the proportion of foreign-born in the country back to levels not seen since about 1910. Today, roughly 13 percent of the population was born elsewhere; add in their children and close to one in four residents are immigrants or second-generation. In this 50th-anniversary year for the Hart-Cellar Act, the National Academy of Sciences–our nation’s official authority on matters scientific–is issuing two reports summarizing years of research on what followed from that act. The first report, focusing on the social implications of recent immigration, is out; another, focusing on the economic implications, will be issued soon.
The Integration of Immigrants into American Society (pdf) presents no dramatic revelations for those who have followed the accumulating research. (That Mexican immigration has so sharply tailed off recently that Asian newcomers now outnumber Latin ones may be a revelation to some.) The short story is that immigrants and their children seem to be assimilating, becoming American, at about the same rate and in about the same ways as earlier generations of immigrants. Becoming more American, however, is not always a good thing.
Immigrants come in many different varieties. They can be divided not only by place of origin but also by skill level. Some come with little education and look for manual work; others come with advanced degrees and fill high-end jobs. (This difference is associated with region of origin, but only roughly.) Clearly, the more-educated will have an easier time making their way and their children will be on a faster track.
Nonetheless, researchers find that, in general, immigrants progress in education and income as they settle down in America, that their children continue that progress, and that the improvement is especially rapid among those whose parents came least prepared. (See figure below.) Historically speaking, this is striking success given that the economy immigrants have faced since 1965 has been much tougher for those seeking manual labor than was true for the European immigrants over a century ago, and given, as well, the many who are undocumented today when, unlike in the earlier period of heavy immigration, having documents is critical.
Language gain and loss is another sign of immigrants’ integration. Today’s immigrants learn English at least as fast as did the earlier-era immigrants. And today’s immigrants’ children and grandchildren lose their homeland language fast. (See also earlier post.) Spanish-speakers lag somewhat behind other immigrants in shifting to English but still compare well to the European immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Other Ways of Americanizing
Americanization is happening, but becoming more American is not necessarily all to the good. Take three points raised in the report.
There is evidence that newcomers arrive in better health than the native-born Americans they are joining, but the longer the immigrants stay, the worse their health; this trend also applies to the second and third generations. Americanizing in this case seems to include copying unhealthy diets and habits.
Immigrants, the NAS report states, are “much less likely to commit crime than natives, and the presence of large numbers of immigrants seems to lower crime rates.” (See also earlier post.) But the next generations seem to pick up the practices of the native-born around them and their involvement in crime increases.
Finally, dark-skinned immigrants, mainly those from Africa and the West Indies, arrive with some of the same immigrant advantages, but in various ways they and their children come to experience America as do native African Americans, those descended from southern slavery, with all the heavy burdens that entails. They have been “Americanized” into our historical caste system.