One of the most frequent complaints from opponents of higher immigration levels is that new arrivals to the United States are not assimilating into American society fast enough.
Recent research indicates otherwise, however. In fact, new waves of immigrants are assimilating at a faster rate than new arrivals in other countries.
Dowell Myers and John Pitkin, demographers at the University of Southern California, studied the progress made by immigrants 20 and older who arrived in the United States in the 1990s.
Their study, which was sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the MacArthur Foundation, found that recent immigrants made impressive progress toward social and economic assimilation until about 2006. Then the U.S. recession set them back.
Still, this group of immigrants, who are mostly from Latin America and Asia, will continue to make gains toward being full members of American society.
The demographers predict that over the next two decades, nearly three-quarters of the new arrivals will own homes and will become fluent in English. Myers and Pitkin cite these as their three major findings:
“Immigrants are assimilating into American life, like their predecessors.
They are on track to achieve great successes by 2030. Most impressive is the fact that the percentage of immigrants who own rather than rent their homes is projected to rise from 25.5 percent in 2000 to 72% in 2030. Furthermore, the percent speaking English well or very well is projected to rise from 57.5% to 70.3% and the percent living in poverty is projected to fall from 22.8% to 13.4%.
Hispanic newcomers show very positive rates of advancement by 2030.
This is contrary to assertions of nativist scholars such as Samuel Huntington who argue that Hispanic immigrants are not assimilating by dint of their large numbers and proximity to their home country. Hispanic immigrants’ advancements mirror that of all immigrants, albeit from a lower starting point. Their anticipated increase in homeownership is particularly noteworthy, from 21% in 2000 to 67% in 2030.
Immigrant youth (age less than 20 on arrival, roughly 20% of all immigrants) also show positive gains and dramatic changes between generations.
These changes illustrate just how much an early arrival helps in the integration process.
High school attainment is greatest for immigrants who arrive the earliest. College completion travels along a similar trajectory. Fluent English language acquisition increases even more dramatically for children arriving before the age of 10 compared to teenagers or young adults.
The Great Recession of 2007 set back immigrants. But we find that they are surprisingly resilient. Despite the downturn they still ended the decade better off than they were in 2000.”
Myers and Pitkin warn that immigrants’ continued gains cannot be taken for granted. Without an improving U.S. economy, without job opportunities and investments in education, immigrants are likely to fall behind.
Another big obstacle for assimilation is legal status. The 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country have a harder time assimilating because of their exclusion from many parts of American life.
A comprehensive reform plan that created some path toward legal residency would help this group of immigrants integrate fully into U.S. society.
The spate of immigration laws from the states has also hindered the advancement of new arrivals. Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Utah and Indiana have passed laws that have pressured the immigrant community and forced many undocumented residents to relocate.
Overall, the study dispels the myth that waves of immigrants who came to the country decades ago assimilated faster than recent arrivals. The research says today’s immigrants are just as willing and able to fully embrace life in America.
Dowell Myers, a demographer and urban planner, is a professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development where he is director of the Population Dynamics Research Group.
John Pitkin, an economist and demographer, is a senior research associate in the Population Dynamics Research Group of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.