‘Who Should Get In?’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Although Christopher Jencks’s recent two-part essay [“Who Should Get In?,” NYR, November 29 and December 20, 2001] exhibits the intellectual dexterity that readers have come to expect from him, his analysis has overall an unjustifiably gloomy tenor concerning the integration prospects of contemporary immigrants and their children.

He dismisses too facilely the possible continuities between the successes of the immigration past, symbolized by the eventual assimilation of Southern and Eastern European groups, and what appears as the problem-pocked landscape of the present. Yet only in the last few decades has the assimilation of the descendants of pre– World War I immigrants been adequately recognized—the blinkered view that Italians, for example, were stuck in the working class (to say nothing of crime) persisted well after substantial upward mobility had begun. Perhaps the view of the contemporary scene is equally clouded.

In decoupling past and present, Jencks relies excessively on economic data and, in particular, on a comparison of immigrant earnings (in relation to those of natives) in 1910 and 1998, which comes from the work of the Harvard economist George Borjas. For a variety of reasons, this comparison is less than definitive—for one thing, the earnings of workers in 1910 were not directly measured (by the US Census) and must be inferred indirectly by a procedure that may distort the economic situations of recently arrived immigrants.

In any event, it is not clear why one should privilege exclusively the economic dimension. The demographic one, which seems just as relevant, especially given the ethnic and religious divisions of the earlier period, yields a comparison pointing in the other direction. That is, in relation to the receiving population, the immigration of the 1830–1925 period was much larger—several times, including the 1900–1909 period, the number of immigrants arriving in a single decade approached 10 percent of the population. There is no decade during the current immigration era that has come close to that figure. In this respect, the challenge of absorbing immigrants was greater in the earlier period than today.

Certainly, the incorporation of contemporary immigrants and the second generation will not simply replicate that of the earlier era, and much about it, even in the near future, remains unpredictable. But Jencks’s emphasis on downward assimilation seems strangely one-sided. To be sure, it is often claimed as a distinguishing feature of the current era. Yet there were surely parallels, including some not-so-benign effects of Americanization, in the earlier period as well. For the contemporary and second generation, there are no convincing data to demonstrate that socioeconomic stagnation characterizes it en masse. Reynolds Farley and I are publishing a paper in the International Migration Review that is based on an analysis of 1998– 2000 Current Population Survey data. The analysis shows unmistakable socioeconomic advance in the second generation, especially for groups, such as the Mexicans, that enter with low levels of human capital. Perhaps an analysis at the end of the prosperous 1990s may overstate the upward movement to be expected…

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