July 11, 2008

Which Immigrant Groups Assimilate Faster?

author_cn By C.N. Le

A common theme among my posts on this blog is the ability of immigrant and racial/ethnic minority groups to assimilate into American society. Many Asian Americans, along with other groups of color, struggle to become assimilated as "Americans" in this country.

As we already know, immigration -- especially illegal immigration -- is a very controversial and emotional issue for many Americans. Among critics of illegal immigrants, one of their main complaints and basis for their fierce opposition is the perception that illegal immigrants are not interested in becoming Americans. Instead, critics fear, they are just here to exploit American society and its institutions or plan to turn the U.S. into a "colony" of Mexico.

Within this context, our job as sociologists is to again try to contribute some objectivity and empirical data to try to answer that question. To what extent do immigrants (legal and illegal) assimilate into American society? Diverse Issues in Education reports on a new study of assimilation among various racial/ethnic groups that finds that immigrants today assimilate faster than earlier immigrants, but that some groups inevitably assimilate faster than others:

Newcomers of the past quarter-century have assimilated more rapidly than their counterparts of a century ago, according to a conservative think tank. However, the report from the Manhattan Institute indicates that Mexican immigrants are not assimilating as fast as other groups. . . . 

In an article for The Boston Globe, [the study's author Prof. Jacob] Vigdor said many Mexicans do not have much incentive to assimilate because they strongly expect to return home and they can function in Spanish-speaking populations in the United States. In addition, those without legal status lack a path to citizenship and better jobs.

This new report is not likely to sway many opinions when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration because both sides can legitimately claim that the results of the study support their own positions.assim1 

That is, critics of rights for illegal immigrants are likely to argue that since Mexican immigrants -- particularly those who are here illegally -- are less likely to assimilate, we should continue efforts to exclude them because ultimately, the results show that they aren't interested in becoming American.

On the other hand, supporters of more rights for illegal immigrants will contend that there's an important cause-and-effect issue here -- many illegal immigrants can't assimilate because they don't have the resources or rights to do so.

In other words, their "illegal" status and the institutional barriers and social restrictions in front of them as a result of their status make it extremely difficult for them integrate into the American mainstream. With that in mind, if we allow them to become citizens, they will eventually assimilate.

I belong to the latter group and favor giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, although not at the expense of others who have been waiting for a immigration visa for years and even decades. In fact, this is one of those instances in which I have agreed with Republicans who favor comprehensive immigration reform, and not just a total focus on just barricading our borders.

diversity1aWe need to expand the levels of immigration to the U.S., especially considering that immigrants produce many tangible benefits for American society and its economy. I realize that this is a controversial idea and you will find plenty of statistical data that will support both sides of the argument over whether immigration constitutes a net benefit or a net loss for the American economy.

Nonetheless, even while Americans argue about the economic impact of immigration, there is no doubt that American society is becoming increasingly diverse (even without immigration), globalized, and transnational as we move forward into the 21st century. Based on that fact alone, immigrants have the potential to contribute significantly to American culture and its global competitiveness.

Ultimately, that may be the kind of assimilation that can unite Americans from all backgrounds.


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This article addresses an issue that I have thought about many times. My boyfriend is a white and I am Mexican. We have been dating for many years and he often comes home to visit my family on holidays and special occassions. One aspect of my family that has always surprised him is that many of my family members barely speak English. One of my aunts has been here in America for over 30 years and she understands, but does not speak English. He just can not understand why she would not want to learn. I agree, but every time he asks me I do not have a definitive answer for why my aunt would not want to expand her horizons. I also have a friend who moved here from Mexico City and married one of my boyfriends (also white) friends. He speaks Spanish well and she requested that they live in Los Angeles. There she works in a mall that caters to primarily Spanish speaking clientele. After living in the U.S. for several years her English has not improved. All of her friends are Spanish speakers and she does not want to move out of her mostly Mexican neighborhood. Neither my boyfriend or I understand why someone would move to America, marry a white boy, but only want to speak Spanish and be around Spanish speakers. I understand that it probably feels more comfortable, but it seems to me that it is such a detriment to someone advancing and having opportunities.

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