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Who Should Get In? Part II

The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration

edited by James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston
National Academy Press, 434 pp., $54.95

Many rich countries have tried hiring foreigners to do their dirty work. Few have been happy with the results. Hiring immigrants for unskilled jobs seems a good deal for the employer. Immigrants will usually accept lower wages than natives, and at least in the United States most employers report that immigrants are more diligent, more reliable, and less prickly than the Americans who apply for such jobs. But hiring unskilled immigrants does not make unskilled Americans disappear; it just depresses their wages. In the long run, moreover, hiring unskilled immigrants has another significant cost. Most immigrants eventually have children, and while many of these children thrive in their new homeland, many do not.

I argued in an earlier article that assimilating the children of Southern and Eastern European immigrants was relatively easy in the first half of the twentieth century because the wage gap between their parents and American-born workers was fairly modest. I also noted that the wage gap between immigrants and American-born workers in 1998 was three times what it had been in 1910.1 This article takes up the question of how that change, along with many others, is likely to affect recent immigrants’ children. I then discuss why some might want to limit the total number of immigrants, regardless of their characteristics, and why Congress keeps letting the number rise.


Most Americans assume that once immigrants arrive in America our goal should be to make them more like us. We usually refer to this process as Americanization or assimilation. Legacies, by Alejandro Portes and RubĂŠn Rumbaut, tracks the Americanization of second-generation immigrants in the San Diego and Miami areas. The book’s most valuable contribution is to show why so many immigrants are ambivalent about Americanization and why we should share this ambivalence. The reason is obvious once you think about it. Whether Americanization is good or bad for immigrants depends on which Americans the immigrants come to resemble. Immigrants tend to be poor. If their children come to resemble the children of poor Americans, they are headed for trouble. Portes and Rumbaut call this “downward assimilation.”

Many children who assimilate downward tend to stop doing their schoolwork fairly early, often because they find it hard, particularly if they have difficulties with English. By the time they reach high school some have stopped doing most of the other things that grownups want them to do. Instead they may join gangs, use a lot of drugs and alcohol, have children out of wedlock, get arrested, and spend time in jail. They then reach adulthood with no social or technical skills that would qualify them for a good job. Indeed, their attitudes often make employers reluctant to hire them even for menial jobs like the ones their parents hold.

Downward assimilation is far from universal, even among children of extremely poor immigrants. Most second-generation immigrants get somewhat more schooling and earn somewhat higher wages than their parents.2 But there are millions of exceptions, so most immigrants worry a lot about the risks to which their children are exposed. Many blame America’s urban schools for not maintaining order, teaching respect, and instilling discipline. Some try to protect their children by moving to safer suburban districts, even when this means cramming six or seven people into three or four rented rooms. But while suburban schools are usually safer than inner-city schools, many immigrants still find them too permissive. Portes and Rumbaut report that some anxious Caribbean immigrants send their teenagers back to the islands for secondary school.

The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience, edited by Charles Hirschman, Philip Kasinitz, and Josh DeWind, is the best available introduction to what we currently know about noneconomic aspects of migration to the United States. In one chapter RubĂŠn Rumbaut surveys much of the evidence on downward assimilation. The most revealing comparisons involve immigrants’ teenage children. Some of these teenagers have spent their entire lives in the United States. Others have spent their early years in Asia, Latin America, or the West Indies before moving to America.

The longer these teenagers have spent in the United States, the more likely they are to behave in ways that most parents deplore. Those born in America have sex at an earlier age and are more likely to become teenage parents. They also drink more, use more drugs, and report more delinquent behavior than teenagers who have spent their childhoods in Latin America or Asia. Latino and Asian adults are also more likely to be in prison if they were born in the United States than if they were born in Latin America or Asia.3 All these differences suggest that living in America undermines parents’ ability to control their children’s behavior.

Growing up in America also seems to be bad for teenagers’ health. Asian and Latino teenagers born in the United States are more likely to be overweight than those who come here later, presumably because America’s diet includes more fats and sugars. In addition, adolescent Latinos and Asians are more likely to report having asthma if they were born in the United States rather than Latin America or Asia.

These differences help to explain another paradox. Despite the fact that second-generation adults usually have more education and income than their parents, second-generation mothers have more low-weight babies and higher infant mortality than first-generation mothers.4 One reason is that those born in America are more likely to smoke and drink while pregnant.5 Pregnant Latinas have unhealthier diets and take more drugs if they were raised in the United States than if they were raised in Latin America.6

All this is, I fear, the dark side of the same economic system that draws so many immigrants to America. America’s laissez-faire economy is unusually productive, but its laissez-faire culture produces an unusually high level of short-sighted, anti-social, and self-destructive behavior. American infants are more likely to die than infants in other rich countries.7 Accidents kill more children in America than in any other rich country.8 American ninth graders use more amphetamines and cocaine than ninth graders in other rich countries.9 American teenagers also have many more babies than teenagers in other rich countries.10 And young adults murder one another more often in America than in other rich countries.11 There are exceptions to this gloomy litany. American teenagers do not rank especially high on alcohol abuse or suicide, for example.12 Still, for the children of immigrants, being born in America brings more downside risks than being born in other rich countries.

Such statistics do not imply that immigrants’ children would have been better off if their parents had not come to America. We do not have infant mortality statistics for children whose parents are still waiting to get into America, but we know that Mexico’s infant mortality is four times America’s, while Mexican mothers who come to the United States have infant mortality rates below those of non-Hispanic whites. This contrast strongly suggests that coming to America reduces the risk that a baby will die. We also know that the murder rate is twice as high in Mexico as in the United States. We don’t know how many Mexicans are murdered in the United States, but a Mexican teenager’s chances of being murdered may well be lower here than there. My point is not that immigrants’ children would be better off in their countries of origin, but that while unskilled immigrants seem able to benefit from America’s economy without succumbing to the social ills that afflict other poor Americans, these immigrants’ children do not enjoy the same kind of immunity.

Table: Immigrants Granted Legal Residence in the United States


Many native-born Americans equate assimilation with becoming fluent in English. If people talk like Americans they are Americans, no matter where they or their parents were born. David Lopez, a UCLA sociologist, surveys the evidence on linguistic assimilation in The Handbook of International Migration. The best data come from a 1989 Census survey that asked young adults whether they spoke English at home and if not, how well they spoke it. For simplicity, I will describe people as “fluent” in English if they either spoke it at home or said that they spoke it “very well.” By this standard, half the Asians who had come to America as adults were fluent English speakers in 1989, compared to a quarter of all Latinos and an eighth of the Mexicans. One reason Latinos know less English is that they have less education. Another reason is probably that some employers in cities like New York and Los Angeles hire only Spanish speakers for certain tasks. Those who work in such settings have little reason to improve their English.

Many Mexicans also see themselves as sojourners who will return home once they have made some money. The typical Mexican male earns about half what a non-Latino white earns, so if he compares himself to other Americans he is likely to feel like a failure. But if he compares himself to the Mexicans with whom he grew up, he is likely to feel quite successful. So he clings to his Mexican identity, sends money back to his parents, goes home for holidays with gifts that his relatives could not otherwise afford, tries to buy property in Mexico for his retirement, and retains his Mexican citizenship. Among Mexican immigrants legally admitted to the United States in 1982, only 22 percent had become American citizens by the end of 1997, compared to about 40 percent of those who came here from the Caribbean and well over half of those from Asia.13

Second-generation immigrants almost always know more English than their parents, but Latinos still lag behind Asians. Among young Mexican adults born in the United States, a fifth say they do not speak English very well, compared with only 5 percent of Asians.14 Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what people mean when they say they do not speak English “very well.” Even people who speak no other language may not feel they speak English “very well.” The available surveys suggest that a sizable number of second-generation Latinos may have trouble communicating in English, but they do not prove that this is the case. Figuring out how many Americans have trouble understanding and speaking English surely ought to be a high priority, but it does not seem to be.

Roughly 10 percent of the American population now speaks Spanish at home. These households are concentrated in and around a few cities, where Latinos are becoming a major political force. Strangers Among Us, by Roberto Suro of The Washington Post, provides a vivid description of the Mexican-American “borderlands” that have sprung up in Southern California and Texas. The United States has not had much experience with large, permanent linguistic ghettos of this kind. We have no way of knowing whether their growth will make mastery of English less common. The Anglo population has, however, grown increasingly alarmed by the prospect that Spanish could displace English in such areas. During the 1990s most American states voted to make English their official language. Such laws have little practical effect, but their popularity suggests that symbolic confrontations over language are likely to grow more common and more divisive if the Bush administration persuades Congress to admit even more Mexicans.

  1. 1

    See “Who Should Get In?,” The New York Review, November 29, 2001.

  2. 2

    For a good review see Min Zhou, “Progress, Decline, Stagnation? The New Second Generation Comes of Age,” in Strangers at the Gates: New Immigrants in Urban America, edited by Roger Waldinger (University of California Press, 2001).

  3. 3

    Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, “Recent Immigrants: Unexpected Implications for Crime and Incarceration,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, July 1998, pp. 654– 679. Although the Immigration and Naturalization Service can deport immigrants convicted of serious crimes, it hardly ever did this during the years covered by this study.

  4. 4

    The Japanese are an exception. Regardless of where Japanese mothers were born, their infant mortality rate is only two thirds that of non-Hispanic whites. See Nancy S. Landale, R.S. Oropesa, and Bridget K. Gorman, “Immigration and Infant Health,” in Children of Immigrants, edited by Donald J. Hernandez (National Academy Press, 1999).

  5. 5

    See Landale et al., “Immigration and Infant Health.”

  6. 6

    See the Rumbaut chapter in The Handbook of International Migration, p. 177.

  7. 7

    See National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2000 (Government Printing Office, 2000), p. 157.

  8. 8

    See UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, “A League Table of Child Deaths by Injury in Rich Nations,” UNICEF, 2001.

  9. 9

    American ninth graders also use far more marijuana than those in Western Europe or Scandinavia, but they use no more than ninth graders in other English-speaking countries. This pattern also holds for LSD. See Manuel Eisner, “Crime, Problem Drinking, and Drug Use: Patterns of Problem-Behavior in Cross-National Perspective,” (Department of Sociology, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, 2000), Table 4.

  10. 10

    The teenage birth rate in the US is more than double that in Australia, Britain, Ireland, and New Zealand and six to fifteen times that in Western Europe. See Elizabeth Fussell, “Youth in Aging Societies” (Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, 2000).

  11. 11

    Patrick Heuveline, “An International Comparison of Adolescent and Young Adult Mortality” (National Opinion Research Center, 2000), Table 8.

  12. 12

    For alcohol abuse, see Eisner, “Crime, Problem Drinking, and Drug Use.” For suicides, see Heuveline, “An International Comparison of Adolescent and Young Adult Morality.”

  13. 13

    1997 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Government Printing Office, 1999), p. 141.

  14. 14

    The Handbook of International Migration, Tables 11.2 and 11.3. The data are for 1989.

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