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Immigration and Assimilation: General Kelly's Words

General John Kelly, the president’s Chief of Staff, recently made headlines when he said that illegal immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm…They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.” He also said that they “are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13.” Were Kelly’s words evidence of his anti-immigrant, and perhaps racist, bias, or was he basing them on facts and was just stating a reality that pro-immigration people are prone to deny?

First of all, Kelly was talking about illegal immigrants, although his words have been taken to signal the attitudes and opinions of the Trump Whitehouse, toward immigrants in general, which, in turn, dictates its policies. The responses to Kelly have been quick and split, depending upon the immigration bias of the responders. Some have charged that Kelly’s opinions represent a bias against immigrants that is at odds with what the data show. Others have said that Kelly is just “telling it like it is.” Most of what has been written on both sides of the debate has shown flawed reasoning or inaccurate information. So what is the truth about how immigrants assimilate? I ask the question with regard to immigrants in general, not just illegal immigrants, because one accusation is that Kelly mentioned illegal immigrants but really meant all immigrants. That’s not really a fair way to analyze the issue, if Kelly meant what he said. But it is helpful to determine if illegal immigrants differ from legal immigrants, while examining the assimilation of immigrants in general.

The immigrant population in America is varied and any discussion that treats “immigrants” as one group is bound to obscure real differences and real issues that may be pertinent to U.S. immigration policy. Besides the division into legal vs. illegal immigrants, we can also divide immigrants by country or region of origin, by ethnicity, by race, and by reason for immigrating. 

Since 2010, the largest number of new immigrants to the U.S., legal or illegal, have been Asian (India and China), followed by Hispanic (Mexico and Central America) and Canadian. Mexican immigration has dipped below the number of Mexican-born immigrants leaving the country, although South and Central American immigration continues to grow. Across the board, immigrants have lower rates of crime than native-born Americans. There are wide differences in level of education of those who arrive, depending upon region and ethnicity. Asians, particularly from India or China, tend to be well-educated, as do Africans, while Mexican and South and Central American immigrants tend to be under-educated compared to the U.S. native born population. Illegal Hispanic immigrants are usually less educated than legal Hispanic immigrants, often without any high school education. Second generation children of all immigrants, either native or foreign born children, tend to be better educated than their parents and children of Asian and African immigrants are better educated than the average native-born American. Hispanic education levels of children of immigrants have lagged behind the native-born American average, but are rising and, since 2013, children of Hispanic immigrants have surpassed native-born Americans in college entry rates (but not graduation rates).

Many immigrants continue to speak their native language as their first choice, and some never become proficient in English. Asian and African immigrants are more likely to arrive being near-proficient in English. Hispanic immigrants are the most likely to not become proficient in English, but the longer they are in the U.S., the more proficient they become and their children virtually all are English-language proficient. Studies have shown that those immigrants’ children who are proficient in two languages do better in school than those proficient in English only.

One of the issues in the conversation about assimilation is whether or not maintaining cultural enclaves in which one immigrant ethnicity dominates in terms of residents, businesses, and language (e.g. Little Havana, Little Saigon, Koreatown, Chinatown etc), is helpful to assimilation or harmful. The answer is not simple, but appears to be that if the ethnic culture is close-knit and supports education, civic participation, and lawfulness, the children who grow up in that culture tend to do better than most native-born Americans in terms of education and jobs, even though they are likely to leave the enclave after they are adults.

Hispanic immigrants tend to use public safety-net services at a higher rate than native-born Americans, but those who do, use fewer services than native-born Americans who use such services. Incomes of Hispanic immigrants lag behind those of native-born Americans and other immigrant groups, and studies are inconclusive as to whether this reflects primarily educational differences or the effects of discrimination, which also limits incomes of native-born African Americans and Hispanics as well as Hispanic immigrants.

These are some of the facts. Whether illegal immigrants are less able to assimilate into the U.S. society, as John Kelly asserted, is also dependent upon one’s definition of assimilation. Most people still consider assimilation to mean replacing one’s native language with the language of the dominant culture, becoming better educated, increasing income, learning the cultural ways of the dominant culture and moving from ethnic/national enclaves into the broader society. This was the pattern of acculturation that characterized Europeans who came to the United States in the past. But in 1993, Portes and Zhou proposed “segmented immigration theory,” which suggested that new immigrants may take many different paths to assimilation, often to a subculture within the country, rather than explicitly to the dominant culture. Some scholars have suggested that two factors that are important for changing the patterns of assimilation in America are the decline of manufacturing jobs, which brought middle class status for those who could learn new skills but needn’t have higher education, and the fact that many new immigrants were racially or ethnically different than the majority of European background Americans and that, while every group from Italians to Irish, received some form of discrimination in the past, the entrenched discrimination based on race and ethnicity that characterizes the U.S. made traditional assimilation difficult. A third factor is the immigration of highly educated and often economically successful (mostly Asian) immigrants. Given these factors, segmented immigration leads to at least three possible outcomes: The first fits the traditional model, in which both the immigrant and his or her descendants begin to use the dominant language, become better educated, move toward the middle class, and completely integrate with the dominant society (which remains European-based, English-speaking). The second pathway is acculturation to a, usually urban, economically challenged subculture where their native language (if not English) is spoken as often as English, educational attainment has a low value, and use of government social safety net programs proliferates. In such subcultures, gang and drug activity may or may not be prominent. A third alternative is acculturation to a economically successful subculture in which education has a high value, traditional language and traditions are valued and maintained, but succeeding generations become English proficient, well-educated, and financially well-off. Members of the succeeding generations may or may not move from the ethnic enclave into the mainstream society in terms of residence, but nearly always do so in terms of work. Each of these pathways is considered a variety of assimilation. 

As America changes and white European-ancestry characterizes the single largest group of citizens, but not the majority of them, other versions of assimilating to America emerge. It is a narrow view to regard only the traditional model of assimilation as a successful one. Studies of Vietmanese, Korean, and Chinese enclaves, as well as some African immigrant enclaves, have shown that the children of immigrants who maintain their culture in such environments within the U.S. outperform the children of native-born Americans both educationally and financially, even if their immigrant parents were less educated and less financially well-off than the average native-born American. It is these parents and their children who have fostered the term, “the immigrant paradox” in which immigrants with fewer apparent resources than most native-born Americans produce children who are more successful.

What about those who assimilate to subcultures that are, by almost any standard, less successful in terms of educational and financial achievement, both among the immigrants themselves and their children? Studies of such communities have shown that the same factors that promote success in other immigrant subcultures promote success in the less successful subcultures, i.e. social cohesion, pressures for civic responsibility, local institutional leadership, and absence of discrimination. If these factors are present, then the next generation of these immigrants will also be successful. What this may mean is that it is impossible to talk about successful assimilation simply by focusing upon the personal qualities immigrants bring with them when they arrive in the U.S. The community to which they attempt to assimilate makes a tremendous difference, and that community, in turn, is strongly affected by the social, legal and economic policies of the larger society. Assimilation into a subculture that is a product of discrimination, which offers flawed institutions such as schools, banks that discriminate in terms of loans to businesses or for home mortgages, and which are poorly and sometimes prejudicially policed, offers little opportunity and certainly much less than is available to other immigrant groups or the majority of native-born Americans (except those who continue to suffer from ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination, i.e. African-Americans).

What does all of this mean with regard to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s opinions? I think it means that dismissing his remarks as evidence of either prejudice against or lack of concern for immigrants or accepting his remarks as an astute observation about the true state of immigrants in America is too shallow of a conclusion. Immigration and assimilation are not easy topics about which one can make generalizations. We all have to guard against oversimplifying the issues out of naiveté or in order to make a point. Not all immigrants are the same. To be honest, Kelly was talking about illegal immigrants, which is a subset of all immigrants (about 25% at the moment, with the percentage shrinking). But he also conceived of assimilation as a monolithic process, which, from what he said, he regards as dependent mostly upon the characteristics of the immigrant, and not the type of environment which meets them on this side of the border. If this is how he thinks, then his views (and perhaps those of the administration) are naive and outmoded in the light of current research on the subject.

America will continue to wrestle with the immigration issue, but we need to be wary of thinking of it in simplistic and outmoded terms, whether we are favoring or criticizing our government’s approach to it. We also have to hope that a view of immigration that is enlightened by recent research and thinking about the issue characterizes how our government develops its policies.




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