February 06, 2008

Latino versus Asian Immigrants

author_cn By C.N. Le

As I’ve written about before, immigration (especially illegal immigration) is one of the most divisive issues of our time. Sociologists can help inject a little bit of objectivity and rationality into this ongoing debate by presenting data, statistics, history, and other “academic” knowledge that can provide a little context and perspective.

At the same time, sometimes it’s interesting to hear “regular” peoples’ opinions about immigration. This idea is at the heart of a new multimedia project headed by Eric Byler. Those of you who are familiar with “indie” films might know him as the director of Charlotte Sometimes and Americanese (an adaptation of Prof. Shawn Wong's novel American Knees), both being critically-acclaimed independent movies about Asian Americans.

Eric's latest project, in collaboration with fellow independent filmmakers Annabel Park, Jeff Man, and Zhibo Lai, is entitled Project 9500 and deals with illegal immigration in Eric’s home state of Virginia. They are putting together a feature-length documentary film, but the project also involves short video essay clips that capture different aspects of the issue. Here are two introductory clips from their YouTube site:

While much of the focus of this project is on Latino immigrants, Eric notes that Asian immigrants have been brought into the issue because many critics argue that Asian immigrants are "good" immigrants. This is based on the belief that they learn English quicker and are perceived to be more willing to assimilate into American society, as opposed to the "bad" Latino immigrants.

Eric emailed me to ask for my “academic” opinion about the sociological similarities and differences between Latino and Asian immigrants. I basically told him that when people argue that Asian immigrants learn English faster than Latino immigrants, what they're actually referring to is social class differences. asian-latino-2

In other words, I would argue that what people are noticing is not that Asian immigrants are somehow inherently more intelligent or better at learning English, but rather, for whatever reasons Asian immigrants (1) tend to be more fluent in English overall and (2) perhaps are perceived to be more willing to learn English. From a sociological point of view, the first point is probably true, but only because the aggregate data tends to show that Asians who immigrate to the U.S. tend to have more education and job skills and more likely to come from their country's middle class. By contrast, Latino immigrants tend to come to the U.S. with less education and job skills and are more likely to come from their country's working class or from a rural background.

In other words, Asians who end up immigrating to the U.S. are more “self-selective” in terms of socioeconomic characteristics. What’s important to note is that this is not due to some inherent superiority that they possess over Latino immigrants -- it's just that the social class (also known as 'human capital') characteristics of immigrants from Asia tend to be higher than those of immigrants from Latin America.

On the second point--the perception that Asian immigrants are more willing to learn English once they're in the U.S.--I would again argue that much of that perception has to do with demographic characteristics, not with individual motivations. That is, because Asian immigrants are a smaller portion of the total U.S. population, they're more likely to be integrated into “mainstream” American society. On the other hand, because they are a larger group and are more likely to be working class, Latino immigrants are also more likely to live almost exclusively within a Latino enclave and therefore have less interaction with other Americans. This may seem counterintuitive -- that a larger population tends to be more segregated. But the larger a group's population, the more likely it is to be segregated. In many respects, whites are the most segregated racial group in the U.S.

If a room of 100 people has a racial composition equal to that of the U.S. as a whole, there would be about 66 white, 12 Blacks, 14 Latinos, 5 Asians, and 3 who are American Indian or multiracial. In this room of 100 people, the average white person has a 31% chance of interacting with a non-white (with an even lower chance of interacting with a Latino, Asian, or Black specifically) while the average non-white has a 66% chance of interacting with a white. asian-latino-1

Thus working-class Latino immigrants are more likely to be segregated from whites than Asian immigrants are. I believe it is this higher rate of segregation that leads many whites to conclude that Latino immigrants are less willing to learn English than Asian immigrants are. Because In fact, since Latino immigrants are more likely to be segregated in neighborhoods with large concentrations of other Latinos, they can get by in their daily lives without fluent English.

But that does not mean that Latino immigrants are less willing to learn English -- it just means that because of their demographic situation, it is not as crucial for them to do so. But are they less “American” as a result? A few months ago, I posted in my other blog about a new study that shows rather clearly that Latino immigrants generally want to be just as ”American” as anybody else.

Ultimately, there might be some truth to perceptions about immigrants, but such points have little to do with individual motivation. They are based largely on social class differences and institutional-level demographic trends and patterns. Nonetheless, research consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, want to become just as American as anybody else.


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I agree with this article. But I also think that the Asian culture tends to focus in getting a good education, careers, having small families. etc this is an important factor that explain why they are more wealthy and they even have higher salaries than the white population.

Who wrote this? This is total BS. Spanish has so much in common with English, it is so much easier for us to understand the grammatical rules as they are pretty much identical in both languages. Asians on the other hand don't even have an alphabet, and they can't comprehend the concept of articles (i.e. "a", "an", "the", etc.) not to mention that most of them have terrible English.

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