Immigration's Aftermath

It is well known by now that immigration is changing the
face of America. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of foreign-born
persons in the United States surged to 28 million in 2000 and now represents 12
percent of the total population, the highest figures in a century. In New York
City, 54 percent of the population is of foreign stock -- that is, immigrants and
children of immigrants. The figure increases to 62 percent in the Los Angeles
metropolitan area and to an amazing 72 percent in Miami. All around us, in these
cities and elsewhere, the sounds of foreign languages and the sights of a
kaleidoscope of cultures are readily apparent. But the long-term consequences are
much less well known.

A driving force behind today's immigrant wave is the labor needs of the
American economy. While those needs encompass a substantial demand for immigrant
engineers and computer programmers in high-tech industries, the vast majority of
today's immigrants are employed in menial, low-paying jobs. The reasons why
employers in agribusiness, construction, landscaping, restaurants, hotels, and
many other sectors want this foreign labor are quite understandable. Immigrants
provide an abundant, diligent, docile, vulnerable, and low-cost labor pool where
native workers willing to toil at the same harsh jobs for minimum pay have all
but disappeared.

The same agribusiness, industrial, and service firms that profit from this
labor have extracted from Congress ingenious loopholes to ensure the continued
immigrant flow, both legal and undocumented. Most notable is the requirement,
created by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, that employers must
certify that their employees have proper documents without having to establish
their validity. Predictably, an entire industry of fraudulent papers has emerged.
Would-be workers at construction sites and similar places often are told to go
get "their papers" and return the following day. Through such subterfuges, firms
demanding low-wage labor have continued to receive a steady supply, thus
guaranteeing their profitability.

Defenders of this free flow portray it as a win-win process: Immigrants
seeking a better life and the businesses that need their labor both gain.
Opponents denounce it as a kind of invasion, as if employers did not welcome
these workers. But this debate sidesteps a more consequential one: What becomes
of the children of these immigrants? Business may think of them as nothing but
cheap labor -- indeed, that's why many business groups support pure bracero
programs of temporary "guestworkers." But the vast majority of these immigrants
want what everyone else wants: families.

So the short-term benefits of migration must be balanced against what happens
next. The human consequences of immigration come in the form of children born to
today's immigrants. Immigrant children and children of immigrants already number
14.1 million -- one in five of all Americans aged 18 and under -- and that figure
is growing fast. A large proportion of this new second generation is growing up
under conditions of severe disadvantage. The low wages that make foreign workers
so attractive to employers translate into poverty and inferior schooling for
their children. If these youngsters were growing up just to replace their parents
as the next generation of low-paid manual workers, the present situation could go
on forever. But this is not how things happen.

Children of immigrants do not grow up to be low-paid foreign workers but U.S.
citizens, with English as their primary language and American-style aspirations.
In my study with Rubén G. Rumbaut of more than 5,200 second-generation
children in the Miami and San Diego school systems, we found that 99 percent
spoke fluent English and that by age 17 less than a third maintained any fluency
in their parents' tongues. Two-thirds of these youths had aspirations for a
college degree and a professional-level occupation. The proportion aspiring to a
postgraduate education varied significantly by nationality, but even among the
most impoverished groups the figures were high.

The trouble is that poor schools, tough neighborhoods, and the lack of role
models to which their parents' poverty condemns them make these lofty aspirations
an unreachable dream for many. Among Mexican parents, the largest group in our
survey as well as in the total immigrant population, just 2.6 percent had a
college education. Even after controlling for their paltry human capital, Mexican
immigrants' incomes are significantly lower than those of workers with comparable
education and work experience. Similar conditions were found among other sizable
immigrant groups such as Haitians, Laotians, Nicaraguans, and Cambodians.
Children born to these immigrants are caught between the pitiful jobs held by
their parents and an American future blocked by a lack of resources and suitable
training. Add to this the effects of race discrimination -- because the majority
of today's second generation is nonwhite by present U.S. standards -- and the
stage is set for serious trouble.

The future of children growing up under these conditions is not entirely
unknown, for there are several telling precedents. Journalistic and scholarly
writings concerning the nearly five million young inner-city Americans who are
not only unemployed but unemployable -- and the more than 300,000 young men of
color who crowd the American prison system -- commonly neglect to mention that
this underclass population did not materialize out of thin air but is the human
aftermath of earlier waves of labor migration. The forebears of today's urban
underclass were the southern-black and Puerto Rican migrants who moved to the
industrializing cities of the Northeast and Midwest in the mid-twentieth century
in search of unskilled factory employment. They too willingly performed the
poorly paid menial jobs of the time and were, for that reason, preferred by
industrial employers. Yet when their children and grandchildren grew up, they
found the road into the American middle class blocked by poverty, lack of
training, and discrimination. The entrapment of this redundant population in
American inner cities is the direct source of the urban underclass and the
nightmarish world of drugs, gangs, and violence that these cities battle every
day.

Children of poor immigrants are encountering similar and even more difficult
conditions of blocked opportunity and external discrimination. In the
postindustrial era, the American labor market has come to resemble a metaphoric
hourglass, with job opportunities concentrated at the top (in professional and
technical fields requiring an advanced education) and at the bottom (in low-paid
menial services and agriculture). New migrants respond by crowding into the
bottom of the hourglass, but their children, imbued with American-style
aspirations, resist accepting the same jobs. This means that they must bridge in
the course of a single generation the gap between their parents' low education
and the college-level training required to access well-paid nonmenial jobs. Those
who fail, and there are likely to be many, are just a step short of the same
labormarket redundancy that has trapped descendants of earlier black and Puerto
Rican migrants.

Assimilation under these conditions does not lead upward into the U.S. middle
class but downward into poverty and permanent disadvantage. This outcome is not
the fault of immigrant parents or their children but of the objective conditions
with which they must cope. All immigrants are imbued with a strong success drive
-- otherwise they wouldn't have made the uncertain journey to a new land -- and
all have high ambitions for their children. But family values and a strong work
ethic do not compensate for the social conditions that these children face.

Parents' educational expectations are quite high, even higher than their
children's. Expectations vary significantly by nationality, but among all groups,
50 percent or more of parents believe that their offspring will attain a college
degree. Yet the resources required to achieve this lofty goal -- parental
education, family income, quality of schools attended -- often are not there. The
differences found among immigrant nationalities are illustrated in charts 1 and
2, which show the wide disparities in parents' income and education and in their
children's attendance at poor inner-city schools. Groups that comprise the
largest and fastest-growing components of contemporary immigration, primarily
Mexicans, have the lowest human-capital endowments and incomes, and their
children end up attending mostly inner-city schools.

Effects of these disparities do not take long to manifest themselves in the
form of school achievement and the probability of dropping out of school.
Parental education and occupation are consistently strong predictors of
children's school achievement. Each additional point in parental socioeconomic
status (a composite of parents' education, occupation, and home ownership)
increases math-test scores by 8 percentile points and reading by 9 points in
early adolescence (after controlling for other variables). Living in a family
with both parents present also increases performance significantly and reduces
the chances of leaving school. Growing up in an intact family and attending a
suburban school in early adolescence cuts down the probability of dropping out by
high school by a net 11 percent, or approximately half the average dropout rate
(again controlling for other variables).

Differences in academic outcomes are illustrated in chart 3, which presents
math-test scores and school-inactivity rates of immigrants' children, again
broken down by nationality. While the correlation is not perfect, the groups with
the lowest family incomes and educational endowments -- and highest probability
of attending inner-city schools -- also tend to produce the most disadvantaged
children, both in terms of test scores and the probability of achieving a
high-school diploma.

At San Diego's Hoover High, there's a group that calls itself the
Crazy Brown Ladies. They wear heavy makeup, or "ghetto paint," and reserve
derision for classmates striving for grades ("schoolgirls" is the Ladies' label
for these lesser beings). Petite Guatemalan-born Iris de la Puente never joined
the Ladies, but neither did she make it through high school. The daughter of a
gardener and a seamstress, she has lived alone with her mother for several years,
since her father was deported and did not return. Mrs. de la Puente repeatedly
exhorted Iris to stay in school, but her message was empty. The pressure of work
kept the mother away from home for many hours, and her own modest education and
lack of English fluency did not give her a clue how to help Iris. By ninth grade,
the girl's grade-point average had fallen to a C and she was just hanging in
there, hoping for a high-school diploma. When junior year rolled around, it was
all over. "Going to college would be nice, but it was clear that it was not for
me," Iris said. Getting a job, no matter how poorly paid, became the only option.
As far as the immigrant second generation is concerned, it simply is not true
that "where there's a will, there's a way." No matter how ambitious parents and
children are, no matter how strong their family values and dreams of making it in
America, the realities of poverty, discrimination, and poor schools become
impassable barriers for many. Like Iris de la Puente, these youths find that the
dream of a college education is just that. The same children growing up in inner
cities encounter a ready alternative to education in the drug gangs and street
culture that already saturate their environment. The emergence of a "rainbow
underclass" that includes the offspring of many of today's immigrants is an
ominous but distinct possibility.

The short-term economic benefits of immigration are easy to understand and
equally easy to appropriate by the urban firms, ranches, and farms that employ
this labor, ensuring their profitability. Absent heroic social supports, the
long-term consequences are borne by children growing up under conditions of
severe disadvantage and by society at large. If the United States wants to keep
indulging its addiction to cheap foreign workers, it had better do so with full
awareness of what comes next. For immigrants and their children are people, not
just labor, and they cannot be dismissed so easily when their work is done. The
aftermath of immigration depends on what happens to these children. The prospects
for many, given the obstacles at hand, appear dim.


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