Slow Assimilation of Mexican Immigrants Poses Questions for Policy Debate

Are today’s immigrants having a harder time blending into society than their predecessors of a century ago? This question is central to the current immigration policy debate, but the answers we hear often rely on personal anecdotes or subjective opinion. The first annual Index of Immigrant Assimilation issued this week by the Manhattan Institute, which uses U.S. Census data to assess the progress of immigrants since the early 20th century, offers us some answers. To judge from this research (which I authored), the news is both good and bad.

The newly arrived immigrants of 2006 bear much resemblance to the newly arrived Italian, Greek, and Polish immigrants of 1910. These immigrants are quite distinct from the native-born population because they speak English relatively poorly and tend to occupy lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. Yet the immigrants of a century ago, and many groups of immigrants today, make quick progress as they spend more time here - advancing economically, and becoming naturalized citizens. In addition, their children are in most ways nearly indistinguishable from native-born children.

However, the set of immigrant groups making substantial progress today excludes the largest group: the 11-million-plus natives of Mexico who are at the heart of most immigration policy debates. In contrast with more successful groups from Asia, the Caribbean, and other parts of Latin America, Mexican immigrants struggle to make progress.

This strong contrast poses a number of questions, some obvious and others not. Why haven’t Mexicans made progress comparable to other groups? There are several factors. Mexicans’ incentives to assimilate fully into U.S. society are low, particularly relative to politically motivated immigrants from countries such as Cuba and Vietnam. Many have strong expectations of returning to Mexico. Moreover, a strong network of Spanish-speaking immigrants exists in most major American cities, reducing the need for Mexican immigrants to learn English in order to survive.

Woman Holding a US FlagEven so, there are undoubtedly many Mexican immigrants who strongly want to integrate their families into American society. Many of these immigrants find their path to the American mainstream blocked, however, by the simple fact that they cannot live or work legally in the United States. Without legal status, there is no road to citizenship. Economic advancement is difficult when one is relegated to the shadows of the labor market.

What, if anything, should we do to encourage assimilation? The anemic progress of Mexican immigrants is but one sign that our current immigration policy is not working. Before deciding what to do about it, though, we need to make some important decisions as a society.

First, should the goal of our immigration policy be to satisfy industrial demand for low-skilled labor? Or should we place a higher priority on admitting new residents who seek to build a permanent attachment with American society? A guest worker program sounds like a great way to achieve the first goal, but runs the risk of creating a class of American residents culturally distanced from the majority, and lacking fundamental political rights and responsibilities. In contrast, demanding a deep commitment to the United States could mean excluding individuals who stand to make important economic contributions - from the unskilled farm worker to the highly-skilled entrepreneur.

Should our policy toward immigrants place a greater value on cultural or civic assimilation? Those who think all immigrants should speak English might see Canadian immigrants as the ideal. Culturally and economically, they are indistinguishable from native-born Americans. But Canadian immigrants don’t have particularly high naturalization rates. As a group, they benefit from American opportunities but place little value on American citizenship.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese immigrants, with the highest naturalization rates among major immigrant groups, are closer to the ideal from a civic perspective. But from a cultural perspective, they are almost as distinct as Mexicans are. As a society, would we rather have Mexican immigrants strive to be more like Canadians, or more like the Vietnamese?

The Index of Immigrant Assimilation can’t answer these questions by itself. It does make clear, though, that any serious effort to reform immigration policy will have to address them.

Vigdor is associate professor of public policy and economics at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. This commentary was first published in the Boston Globe on May 19, 2008.