What should immigrants do when they get here?

Immigration has temporarily faded as a hot-button issue, for the moment overshadowed by health care reform (not to mention foreign affairs). Expect it to return to attention, however--not least because of the scale of our current immigrant population.

There continue to be more foreign-born American residents (almost 40 million) than at any time in our history (almost three times the previous peak in 1920). That's raised understandable concerns not only about border control--with perhaps as many as a third of these immigrants in the country illegally--but about the extent to which new immigrants are following in the footsteps of their predecessors and assimilating into American culture--learning English, becoming citizens, moving up the economic ladder.

For the second year running, the Manhattan Institute asked that I examine data compiled annually by the U.S. Census Bureau to answer that question. The data show clearly that the new immigrants are becoming more like native-born Americans, whether in cultural, civic or economic terms.

In some respects, today's immigrants are actually outperforming their predecessors of generations past. This progress is clearly uneven, however, and the signs of trouble point to problems with our current immigration policy.

Two of the most promising signs regarding the progress of modern immigrants concern language and naturalization. Only about 10% of the foreign-born population cannot speak any English, and for every immigrant who cannot speak English, there are five who speak the language very well.

The English skills of today's immigrants are actually better than their counterparts of a century ago. At the same time, the minority of immigrants with poor English skills are making relatively weak progress over time, fueling concerns of a permanent linguistic fractionalization.

The road to citizenship is harder to follow now than it was a century ago, when the nation essentially had an "open borders" policy. Newly arrived legal immigrants can expect to wait up to 15 years or more before they are eligible for citizenship, a century ago the wait was only five years.

In spite of this difference, today's immigrants become citizens at a rate nearly identical to those of immigrants who arrived in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. The right of permanent membership in our society is valued highly by most immigrants.

Not all groups exhibit such high rates of naturalization, however. For illegal immigrants, there is no road to citizenship whatsoever. It is therefore not surprising to learn that immigrants from Mexico and nearby countries in Central America naturalize at low rates.

It is sometimes easy to forget that most of the foreign-born individuals living in the United States today come from countries other than Mexico. For the immigrants in this silent majority, the path to assimilation is if anything even more rapid than it was a century or more ago. The capacity of American society to welcome newcomers and integrate them into the economic, cultural, and civic mainstream is as strong as it has ever been.

Why aren't all contemporary immigrants taking advantage of this capacity? In some cases, they don't want to. In other cases, they just can't, whether they want to or not. Illegal immigrants simply can't assimilate along certain dimensions - they can't become citizens, and certain avenues of economic self-advancement are entirely closed to them.

Along other dimensions, the lack of legal status alters an individual's decision calculus. Would you spend time and money learning a language abroad if you knew you could be deported from that country at any moment?

Bear this in mind when the immigration policy debate heats up again. A comprehensive immigration policy must consider not only who's allowed in the country, but also what we'd like them to do once they are here.

Jacob L. Vigdor is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His new report for the Manhattan Institute, "Immigrant Assimilation in the United States: 2007" is available online at http://www.manhattan-institute.org. This article was originally published in The Washington Examiner on Oct. 7, 2009.