Immigrants Are Fitting In More Quickly, Mexicans Lag Behind

Andres Viglucci, McClatchy-Tribune, May 18, 2008

A wide-ranging and provocative new study of immigrants’ integration into U.S. society has concluded that newcomers today are assimilating more quickly than their predecessors did 100 years ago—with Cubans, Vietnamese and Filipinos among those leading the way.

The study, conducted by a Duke University economist and published last week by the Manhattan Institute, a free-market-oriented conservative think tank in New York City, seeks to break new ground on one of the most contentious topics in the debate over immigration—the question of how the immigrant stream of the past 25 years is jelling with its sometimes wary host.

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Mexicans—by far the most numerous nationality—lag significantly behind other big immigrant groups, possibly because a lack of legal status keeps many Mexican immigrants from advancing.

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Economic, cultural, civic

The study, based on U.S. Census Bureau and survey data, considered assimilation as of 2006 on three fronts—economic, cultural and civic—and assigned each immigrant group a number ranging from zero to 100 that indicates how similar its members are to native-born Americans. The higher the number is, the more assimilated the group.

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Though Cubans scored well above the national average of 28 on Vigdor’s assimilation index, other principal nationalities in Miami, including Haitians, Brazilians and Nicaraguans, pulled down the local score.

The study—”Measuring Assimilation in the United States”—is meant to inform the immigration debate and makes no recommendations, Vigdor [Jacob L. Vigdor] said Monday.

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Rising numbers

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Critics of the influx often compare current newcomers unfavorably to their counterparts in the previous great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contending the newest immigrants fail to assimilate.

Vigdor’s conclusion appears to undercut that argument, while highlighting issues such as Mexican immigrants’ markedly slower assimilation.

The study found that today’s newcomers are at this point less integrated than their counterparts 100 years ago. That’s likely because those immigrants a century ago were largely European, with one of the largest groups coming from England, and thus started out with cultural and economic levels closer to that of native-born Americans.

By contrast, today’s newcomers, who are mostly from Asia and Latin America, start off further behind, Vigdor said.

But today’s immigrants are making faster progress. As a result, even as immigration has skyrocketed, assimilation has remained stable, Vigdor concluded. “This is something unprecedented in the United States,” he said.

Immigrants are integrating rapidly on the economic and civic fronts—that is, in terms of income, education and naturalization and military service, among other factors. But they are doing so more slowly in cultural terms—in learning English and intermarrying with the native-born.

That may in part reflect the difficulty immigrant adults have in learning English, as well as pressures among the newly arrived to marry within their group, Vigdor said.

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Children who arrive before age 5 become indistinguishable from native-born children along economic, cultural and civic lines as they grow into adulthood—with the exception of Mexicans.

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