America's Immigration Success Story
Mary C. Water 05.29.07, 12:00 PM ET
Debates about American immigration policy focus on how we should control our borders and what we should do about the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living and working throughout the country. But the debate really reflects Americans' deep fears about the long-term integration of the more than 30 million immigrants who have arrived on our shores since we liberalized our immigration laws in 1965.
Some worry about whether English is endangered as our national language. Others claim that poor immigrants tax our welfare and health care systems. Some question whether immigrants will become loyal and patriotic Americans. All focus on what will happen in the future--about what will happen to the children and grandchildren of today's newcomers.
On that subject, comparing these newcomers with Europe's second-generation immigrants shows that America is doing a lot that is right. The riots in French cities, the home-grown second-generation terrorists in Britain and the dismal employment and education statistics for the second generation in Germany all contrast sharply with the latest research on the successful integration of the second generation in the U.S.
In Pictures: America's Immigrants Through History
In the New York Second Generation Study we surveyed a large group of second-generation young adults in New York City whose parents had come from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Russia. We found impressive educational and occupational mobility. While most of the immigrant parents had low-level "immigrant jobs," their adult children all resembled other New Yorkers their age much more than they resembled their parents. And they all had high school and college graduation rates higher than native New Yorkers of the same racial backgrounds.
Dominicans had higher educational outcomes than Puerto Ricans, West Indians did better than native blacks and the Chinese surpassed every other group in the city, including native whites. In national studies these patterns of social mobility hold for a wide variety of groups. And despite the urgent fears of many Americans about the place of English as our national language, all the research shows rapid language assimilation--the second generation is overwhelmingly fluent in English and the third generation speaks only English.
An emerging consensus in the research on the second generation reaches an optimistic conclusion on both social and economic integration. This is good news for all of us, since one out of every five children under the age of 18 today is a child of an immigrant
Why is the second generation doing so much better in the U.S. than in Europe? It is not because we have better official integration policies. In fact the U.S. does not have a government program of integration and multiculturalism, as many other nations do. Our success is because of several distinct American advantages.
First, our birthright citizenship laws mean that the children of immigrants who are born in America are automatically citizens, fully accepted with all the same rights and responsibilities as the native born. In many European countries there are people whose parents or even grandparents were the original immigrants, who may never have visited the country their ancestors came from, but who are still considered "foreigners."
Second, unlike many European countries our educational system is more flexible, less rigidly tracked, and allows more "second chances" for the children of immigrants to succeed academically even if they start school with English language deficits or other disadvantages owing to their parents immigrant status.
Third, our work laws and economy encourage legal immigrants to enter the labor market and begin economic integration immediately. Many European countries have barriers to employment for immigrants, which make them dependent on the welfare state and engender much native-born resentment against immigrants and their children.
Finally, our civil rights laws and practices, such as affirmative action and antidiscrimination legislation, while designed to redress injustices suffered by African-Americans, are benefiting many children of immigrants who are black or Hispanic and thus qualify for inclusion in diversity initiatives in universities and corporate workplaces.
On the whole, America is reaping the benefits of our immigrant-friendly economic and civic structure. But while Western Europe has a lot to learn from the U.S. on the subject of immigration there is one area in which the U.S. would do well to learn a lesson from across the Atlantic.
Many of the inclusive practices and policies outlined above do not apply to undocumented immigrants and their children who live among us, work in our fields and factories and struggle to raise their families in the shadows of illegality. The estrangement evident among the European second generation who do not feel fully included in their own societies could characterize the children of undocumented immigrants, especially those who were born abroad and face severely blocked chances for higher education and employment.
To make matters worse, misguided congressmen have routinely introduced legislation that would deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants born on our soil--a change that has heretofore correctly been rejected by lawmakers. One only has to look to Germany or Switzerland to see that denying birthright citizenship does not cause immigrants or their children to return to their country of origin, but it does cause anger, disengagement and long-term resentment.
America needs to recognize that undocumented immigrants and their children are not leaving anytime soon. Including these immigrants and their children as equals in our economy and our society will have long-run positive benefits for them and ultimately for all of us.
In Pictures: America's Immigrants Through History
Mary C. Waters is M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and the co-editor of The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965, Harvard University Press, 2007.