How ‘They’ Become ‘We’

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

New U.S. citizens pledge the Oath of Allegiance during a special Flag Day naturalization ceremony at the New York Historical Society, Tuesday, June 14, 2016, in New York.

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Although the United States has only about 5 percent of the world’s population, it is home to nearly 20 percent of the world’s international migrants. The current xenophobia-tinged election-year rhetoric and polarized stalemate on immigration policy may suggest that America has given up on its tradition of incorporating newcomers and weaving their cultures into the national experience. But that conclusion would be a mistake. Immigrants have continued to become successfully integrated into American society—more successfully than have immigrants to European countries that are now confronting severe conflicts over these issues.

The federal government has historically taken a hands-off approach to integrating immigrants. Rather than exercising any direct regulation, it has let immigrants and their families find their way—sometimes with the help of local and voluntary organizations, state and local authorities, and members of their own community. But national policy has played a crucial part in immigrant integration, from the adoption of the 14th Amendment’s provision for birthright citizenship in 1868 to the 1965 immigration law that diversified the flow of newcomers and the education and labor policies benefiting immigrants that were also enacted as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

The surprise is that this tradition of support for immigrants remains strong despite partisan deadlock on broad immigration reform. In recent years, Congress has been able to summon bipartisan majorities to pass two measures that foster immigrant opportunity and advancement. One of these should enable some immigrants to enter workforce training programs that have previously excluded them. The other, the successor to No Child Left Behind, is likely to put greater pressure on schools and state governments to serve English-language learners, most of whom are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Policy still falls short in other ways. But to appreciate the American achievement in integrating immigrants is also to understand what is at stake if the federal government begins mass deportations of the unauthorized and disrupts the lives of millions of families long settled in this country.

Thanks to a two-year inquiry by the National Academies of Sciences, we now have a solid base of factual information for understanding how well immigrants are integrating into American society. (Full disclosure: I served on the 17-member National Academies panel.) Immigrants and their children are now learning English as fast or faster than they have in the past. Immigrant men are employed at higher rates than those born in the United States. The data reveal that by the second generation (that is, the U.S.-born children of immigrants), all immigrant groups make substantial gains. The proportions completing high school and attending college rise rapidly by generation (or remain high), so the overall educational attainment of immigrant children closes the gap with the native born. Immigrants make similar gains in incomes. Other research finds that the children of immigrants catch up to the U.S.-born in their literacy and numeracy skills.

The upshot of these trends is that members of the second generation come to resemble the native born in their social and economic position. This evolution from “they” to “we” is nowhere more evident than in U.S. intermarriage rates. Today, one in seven marriages is interracial or interethnic—double the share just a generation ago. As a result, 35 percent of all Americans now say they have “close kin” of another race. This pattern of integration in the United States differs from Europe, where unemployment rates for immigrants are typically higher than for natives and the limited language skills and poor earnings of immigrants persist into the second and even the third generation.

Not all the trends in the United States are positive. Race matters for immigrants as it does for the native born: Poverty is higher among the second generation of black immigrants than among the first generation. Earnings grow more slowly among Hispanics than among other immigrant groups. While Asians do well on many integration measures, they earn less than non-Hispanic whites with similar educational credentials.

Becoming more similar to native-born Americans does not always work to immigrants’ advantage. While immigrants themselves have a three-year longer life expectancy than the native born, their children do not—health advantages decline by the second generation. The share of two-parent families also falls, as divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births rise over generations. On balance, though, immigrants and their children derive substantial social and economic gains from coming to America.


WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR THE RELATIVELY successful integration of the largely nonwhite flows of immigrants who have entered the United States since the 1965 Immigration Act? By abolishing national-origin preferences that had favored Europeans, that legislation has made possible increased immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The relatively open labor market in the United States has helped to incorporate immigrants and their children at all skill levels. In many European countries, in contrast, discrimination and structural barriers limiting entry to many fields of work result in significantly higher unemployment rates among both low- and high-skilled immigrants than among their native counterparts.

National policies dating to the Great Society have also promoted immigrant integration in the United States. The most important of these measures have funded bilingual education and compelled schools to take account of the needs of English-language learners. These concerns were embedded in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and later expressly adopted in the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, which sought to eliminate discrimination based on national origin. Federal court decisions and subsequent legislation have extended these policies, which today govern instruction for the five million English-language learners who make up one in ten students in K-12 schools across the country. It was also during the Great Society that federal policy began to support adult basic education and the provision of English as a second language (ESL) to adults.

Despite the deadlock on immigration policy, Congress has passed two major laws with bipartisan support that should benefit immigrants. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, enacted in 2014, singles out English-language learners, people with low levels of literacy, and “individuals facing substantial cultural barriers” as priorities for assistance with education and training. The law, however, does not provide additional funding, so much will depend on how the states carry out the program. The Every Student Succeeds Act—enacted in 2015 as the successor to No Child Left Behind—may also improve education for immigrants. Like its predecessor, Every Student Succeeds holds schools accountable for the progress and outcomes of English-language learners. But it goes further by making those students’ progress in English proficiency central to how schools’ performance will be assessed. This provision should put more pressure on states to serve English learners.

We could do more to facilitate the integration of immigrants. Since immigrants do so much of the low-wage work in America, they would particularly benefit from better enforcement of federal and state labor laws. National policies should also not forget the two million immigrants with college degrees who are underemployed in low-skill jobs or not employed at all. Licensing laws could more readily recognize foreign-earned credentials. Providing low-cost bridge courses to fill educational gaps could open the way to higher-skilled employment.

Naturalization rates are lower for immigrants in this country than in Canada and Australia; 8.8 million immigrants in the United States are eligible to naturalize but have not done so. One way to enable more immigrants to become citizens would be to lower the fees. In 1996, it cost $95 to apply for citizenship; by 2015, the fees had risen to $680. Expanding waivers for low-income applicants would reduce the barriers. The waiting period to apply for citizenship could also be shorter (Canada’s is four years); the civics and language tests could be easier (Sweden doesn’t administer a language test); and the government could boost spending on English language for civics purposes.

At no recent time in the United States has the future of immigrant communities hung more clearly on the outcome of an election, with one party’s presidential candidate promising to begin mass deportations of the roughly 11 million unauthorized and the other party seeking to give them a path to citizenship. The deportations would also affect the 4.5 million children—nearly all U.S. citizens themselves—who live in “mixed-status families” with one or more unauthorized parents. Some of these children would be left behind in deep poverty, while others would be forced to adjust to countries and languages they do not know. Contrary to widely held perceptions, most of the unauthorized are not recently arrived single men; nearly 80 percent have been in the United States for five years or more, half for at least ten years. They have become embedded in local communities and economies that would be massively disrupted by the loss of workers and consumers. These community-level effects would be highly concentrated geographically; Nevada, Texas, California, Florida, and New Jersey would be hit the hardest.

The break from the recent past would be dramatic. Although national policy toward immigrants has been hands-off, it has largely aided their integration into American society, especially since the 1960s. The stakes this year are high not just for the parties and candidates, but for the future of immigrant communities. America’s much-envied historical accomplishment of turning “they” into “we” may be in jeopardy in an election when anti-immigrant voices are hoping to turn “us” against “them.”


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