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 Rubén 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…

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