Fall/Winter 2015 Vol. 15 Number 2

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Immigrants and Their Integration into U.S. Society

The United States prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, and it has a long history of accepting people from across the globe into its populace. With 41 million immigrants and 37.1 million children of immigrants born stateside, these first and second generations account for one-quarter of the U.S. population. In recent months, immigration reform has resurfaced as a major topic of discussion in presidential campaigns, bringing questions about whether immigrants are integrating into ©BananaStock/Thinkstock life in the U.S. and becoming successful members of our society under a spotlight.

A recent Academies report examines the evidence on how immigrants are doing in a range of areas -- from education and health to language and family patterns. The study committee that wrote the report found that across all measurable outcomes, immigrants and their descendants are integrating into U.S. society. As they assimilate, many aspects of their lives improve over subsequent generations, including educational attainment, occupational distribution, income, and language ability. Over generations, however, their well-being declines and comes to resemble that of native-born Americans in the areas of health, crime, and family patterns.

Immigrants are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and all cancers, have lower infant mortality and obesity rates, and have a longer life expectancy in comparison with the native-born. However, these advantages decline as their health status converges with that of the general population over generations.

Other measures of individual and community well-being show the same pattern, according to the committee. Immigrant men age 18-39 are incarcerated at one-fourth the rate of native-born American men of the same age, but crime rates increase in subsequent generations and by the third generation resemble those of the general U.S. population. Similarly, immigrant divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates start off much lower than those of native-born Americans but rise over time. Because single-parent families are more likely to be impoverished, this is a disadvantage going forward.

Despite large differences in education starting points among first-generation immigrant groups, there is strong progress across generations. Among most immigrant groups, the children of immigrants meet or exceed the schooling level of typical third-generation and native-born American children.

In terms of employment and earnings, immigrant men with the lowest level of education are more likely to be employed than comparable native-born men, suggesting that immigrants appear to be filling low-skilled jobs that native-born Americans are not available or willing to take. Foreign-born workers' earnings improve relative to native-born earnings the longer they live in the United States, though earnings assimilation is considerably slower for Hispanic (predominantly Mexican) immigrants than for others.

With regard to residential integration, most immigrants and their descendants gradually become less segregated over time from native-born whites and more dispersed across regions, cities, and neighborhoods. In addition, the committee found, race plays an independent role: Asians are the least segregated from native-born whites in metropolitan areas, followed by Hispanics, and then black immigrants, who are the most segregated.

It is a political and not a scientific question whether the U.S. should try to prevent the integration of undocumented immigrants or provide a path to legalization, and thus was not within the committee's study purview. However, it identified three barriers to immigrant integration that are of particular concern. First is the role of legal status in slowing or blocking the integration of not just the estimated 11.3 million undocumented but also their citizen children. Second, patterns of immigrant integration are shaped by race, and there is ongoing racial stratification in socio-economic outcomes for immigrants and their children. Last, the low percentage of immigrants who naturalize -- only 50 percent -- compared with other immigrant-receiving countries has negative implications for political and civic integration.

-- Dana Korsen

The Integration of Immigrants Into American Society. Panel on the Integration of Immigrants Into American Society, Committee on Population, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2015, approx. 520 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-37398-2; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $75.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Mary Waters, M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. The study was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, National Science Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with additional funding from the National Academy of Sciences' Kellogg Fund.

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