Struggles of the Second Generation

N.C. Aizenman, Washington Post, December 7, 2009

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Largely because of the growth of this second generation, Latino immigrants and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren will represent almost a third of the nation’s working-age adults by mid-century, according to projections from U.S. Census Bureau data by Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer with the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Not since the last great wave of immigration to the United States around 1900 has the country’s economic future been so closely entwined with the generational progress of an immigrant group. And so far, on nearly every measure, the news is troubling.

Second-generation Latinos have the highest high school dropout rate–one in seven–of any U.S.-born racial or ethnic group and the highest teen pregnancy rate. These Latinos also receive far fewer college degrees and make significantly less money than non-Hispanic whites and other second-generation immigrants.

Their struggles have fueled an outcry for stricter immigration laws, with advocates saying that the rapid increase in Latino immigrants and their children has strained the United States’ resources and social fabric.

“The last 30 years of immigration have made our country more unequal, poorer than we would have been otherwise, more fractious and less cohesive,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors tighter restrictions on immigration.

Supporters of Latino immigrants say that the newcomers and their children have spurred economic growth and contribute far more to society than they take from it. They also note that even a complete halt to future immigration would not change the footprint of the 15.5 million U.S.-born offspring of Latino immigrants already in the country.

Perhaps the only yardstick by which the second generation has achieved unambiguous success is the one that has stirred the most public controversy: English proficiency. Despite fears among some people that English usage is diminishing in the Latino community, census data and several studies indicate that by the second generation, nearly all Latinos are fluent in English and that by the third generation, few can even speak Spanish.

The second generation’s lack of success on educational and economic fronts is largely explained by their immigrant parents’ extremely low starting point. Forty percent of second-generation Latino children are born to parents who never completed high school. Only 12 percent have a parent with a college degree or higher.

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Although adding on a year or two of education beyond high school can boost their incomes, to be truly guaranteed a middle-class lifestyle, second-generation Latinos need at least a bachelor’s degree–a feat that the last major wave of immigrants, from Eastern and Southern Europe, took three or four generations to achieve.

“The second generation is doing way better” than their parents, said Ruben Rumbaut, a professor at the University of California at Irvine and a leading scholar on second-generation Latino immigrants. “But way better can still mean they are high school dropouts with 11 years of education, as opposed to their parents, with six years. And in this economy, an 11th-grade dropout is not going to make it.”

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