Immigration: What the U.S. does right

The nation recently received two contradictory signals about the importance of immigration reform. President Obama stood near the Mexican border in El Paso on May 10 and called (again) for immigration reform. The next week, Gallup released a poll showing that a scant 4% of Americans consider immigration to be the nation's most important problem. That's down from 11% four years ago.

What's happened to our national immigration angst? Clearly, the economic slump that began in late 2007 has given us other things to worry about. The long recession and slow recovery have had more direct effects on our perception of immigration problems too.

This is a central conclusion of a recently released Manhattan Institute report I wrote on immigrant assimilation. The recession brought immigration to a virtual halt, and in the process smoothed over the differences between immigrants and natives that provoked so much worry in headier times.

The recession affected immigrants more severely than natives. This led some migrants to leave the country, and undoubtedly caused some would-be migrants now living in other countries to stay put. The immigrants most likely to leave were, by and large, recent arrivals to the United States, and recent immigrants are always the least assimilated, measured by economic status, cultural factors like English fluency, or civic engagement. When some of these new arrivals depart, and other would-be new arrivals decide to stay home, the average differences between immigrants and natives narrow. As these differences fade into memories, our collective concern with immigration policy naturally declines.

Are we being shortsighted? Will we start worrying about immigration again once the economy heats up? The Manhattan Institute report provides some additional perspective on these questions, by comparing the experiences of immigrants in the United States and 10 other advanced nations. Though many of us have been conditioned to think of international comparisons as unflattering to the U.S., handling immigration turns out to be one thing we do better than most of the rest of the world.

This conclusion leaps out from study of many indicators in many countries. The homeownership rate among immigrants to America exceeds that of immigrants to Italy by 20 percentage points. The employment rate of American immigrants exceeds that of immigrants to the Netherlands by 13 percentage points. Immigrants here are more likely to be naturalized citizens than those in many European countries.

A focus on averages does obscure important parts of the story. While the more successful half of the immigrant population, represented most clearly by immigrants born in Asia, has done quite well, the other half has exhibited much slower progress. As we worry about the status of Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, however, so do Europeans worry about Muslim immigrants โ€” many of them similarly illegal โ€” from North Africa and the Middle East. Witness the 2009 Swiss ban on the construction of minarets, and the collective hand-wringing of Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron on the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. Evaluated side by side, the problems of Muslim immigrants in Europe are as bad or worse than those of Mexicans and Central Americans here.

Given demographic trends in the developing world, the transatlantic divide in immigrant experiences is bound to grow. Fertility rates in Mexico, which a generation ago ran more than twice the level in the United States, now equal those on this side of the border. History shows that slowdowns in fertility precede slowdowns in emigration. Africa, a vastly more important source of migrants in Europe than in North America for simple reasons of geography, will be the last continent to witness the great decline in fertility rates historically associated with economic development.

Aside from demography and geography, what explains the surprising success of modern American immigrants? Culture and history clearly matter. Referring to oneself as German or Italian invokes concepts of ethnicity and of national identity simultaneously. In this country, we have long separated the two. Our hyphenated identities may be disagreeable to some, but they encapsulate a societal readiness to assimilate. We couple this cultural plasticity with reasonable policies. We place relatively few obstacles on the path to economic and civic integration.

While the U.S. fares well in international context, there is one nation that consistently outperforms us. Thanks in some part to its greater distance from the developing world, and in larger part to its own policy choices, Canada stands out as the developed nation with the best record of incorporating immigrants into society. This record appears consistently in international comparisons of migrants from specific birth regions, from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Two facets of immigration policy help to explain Canada's success. In distributing visas, Canada emphasizes skills and education rather than country quotas and family reunification. Just as important, Canada permits dual citizenship and allowing naturalization after only three years.

Our immigration system is clearly not perfect. But it is, in fact, quite good. The first task of any proposal for reform should be to preserve our innate advantage in incorporating immigrants into society.

Jacob L. Vigdor is a professor of public policy and economics at the Sanford School of Public Policy. This commentary was originally published in The Los Angeles Times.