We got some very good news recently about the twenty million adults in this country who were born here and are the children of immigrants. A comprehensive report from the Pew Research Center finds that this second generation is doing significantly better than today’s first-generation immigrants in terms of education, home ownership rate, percentage living below the poverty line, and median income. Surprisingly, the second generation even matches the economic success of Americans overall, while graduating from college at higher rates than the U.S. average. (This reflects the high college-graduation rate of Asian Americans, who make up a larger proportion of second-generation immigrants than the general population).
Additionally, the Pew survey found that, compared to immigrants, second generation Americans have much higher percentages that are proficient in English (including nine-tenths of both Hispanic and Asian Americans), are more likely to have friends and marry outside the boundaries of their ancestral group, to believe that relations between their group and other Americans are good, and to consider themselves a “typical American.” (To clarify, this survey is not comparing second-generation immigrants and their own parents, but today’s entire adult population of immigrants within two generations of arriving in America.) In another interesting finding, three-quarters of first and second generation Hispanic and Asian Americans believe that hard work is enough to ensure success in most cases, compared to 58 percent of Americans overall. Both generations of both ethnic groups are also more politically liberal and less Republican-leaning than the general population, countering the myth that conservatives have a monopoly on the belief in hard work.
One of the great fallacies expressed by some in the immigration debate today is that contemporary immigrants just aren’t assimilating or Americanizing in the way the “good old” immigrants did in the Ellis Island generations of the early twentieth century. Some of that, of course, reflects nostalgia for those immigrants, who are in many cases the grandparents or great-grandparents of the people expressing such a belief. The reality, as this Pew report and other similar studies make clear, is that the post-1965 immigrants are doing their part. By the second generation, they are learning English, and not just those from Asia but those from Spanish-speaking countries as well (typically, the criticism that immigrants and their children aren’t learning English and aren’t integrating is aimed at Hispanic Americans). They are identifying in large numbers not only as Americans but as “typical Americans,” and they are marrying and having friends outside their ethnic group in numbers even larger than the overall population.
There have long been, and will continue to be, anti-immigration activists who stoke fears about separatist immigrants and the Balkanization of our society, especially as our population continues to grow less and less white. I do believe it is vital that America has a unifying national identity and that immigrants feel a sense of community with their fellow Americans — and vice versa. And by no means is everyone who expresses concerns about how well we’re doing on those fronts is a bigot or a demagogue. In my next post I’ll be writing some more about the issues of integration and “Americanization” and how this country approached them in the early twentieth century. But this report from Pew about second-generation immigrants truly is welcome. It confirms that even as our immigrant population has shifted from being overwhelmingly European to predominantly Asian and Hispanic in origin, we are continuing to succeed in integrating newcomers in our culture as well as our economy.
One of the most valuable things America can do is show the world that a society made up of people from every corner of the globe — where in a generation or two no race will be a majority — can be a place where people can choose to preserve their ancestral cultures even as they truly become one people as Americans. We can serve as an alternative model to societies that reject pluralism, that look to suppress dissent and diversity because their majority believes its culture or beliefs are the only acceptable ones. One report doesn’t mean the task has been accomplished. But it does mean that, on an issue of paramount importance for us and for the world, we are on our way.
Ian Reifowitz is In The Fray‘s staff blogger and the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. Twitter: @IanReifowitz