The Implications of Ethnic Attrition for the Immigration Reform Debate


As I explain in my new Reuters Opinion column, drawing on the (fascinating) work of economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo, many second- and third-generation Americans who are entitled to identify as Hispanic or Asian by virtue of having one or more grandparents born in a Spanish-speaking country or in Asia choose not to do so. This “ethnic attrition” has the potential to bias the results when we investigate the life outcomes for second- and third-generation Americans belonging to a given ethnic category. Some, myself included, have observed that while second-generation Hispanic Americans make considerable progress in educational attainment and economic outcomes relative to their immigrant parents, progress seems to stall between the second and third generation. Yet if large numbers of people we might consider third-generation Hispanics according to an objective standard (i.e., having at least one grandparent born in the relevant source country) choose not to identify as Hispanics, we’re left with numbers for the residual population that does choose to identify as such. And if this residual population tends to have lower levels of educational attainment and household income than what we might call the exiting population, we might conclude that the third generation is faring less well than it really is when understood broadly. I deliberately steered clear of the implications of these findings for the immigration reform debate, as I wanted to let readers draw their own conclusions. Rather, I discussed them in the context of a recent controversy over the Hispanic “authenticity” of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But others, including Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect and Matt Yglesias of Slate, have suggested that ethnic attrition has clear implications for the immigration reform debate, e.g., Jamelle Bouie writes:

This isn’t an unusual trajectory—Italian immigrants and their descendants followed it, as did Irish immigrants and other European immigrants. For those groups, their national and cultural distinctions fell away until—by and large—they were just “white.” Assimilation had cleansed “Italian-ness” and “Irish-ness” of its stigma, giving Irish and Italian Americans a chance to participate in the full range of national life.

Pundits routinely predict a “majority-minority” America, on account of large waves of Latino and Asian American immigration. But that depends on the emergence of a durable Latino and Asian identity. There are signs of it happening—the partial result of right-wing nativism and anti-immigrant policies—but it’s no guarantee. And if it doesn’t, assimilation and high intermarriage rates are likely to give us a repeat of the 20th century—today’s “Hispanics” and “Asians” will be tomorrow’s white people with a different flavor of ethnic last name.

And Matt suggests that this ethnic attrition dynamic is hard to square with my general skepticism about the value of increasing less-skilled immigration. I see this differently. The historical period Jamelle describes was different from our own in many important respects, one of which is that the gap in educational attainment between native-born Americans and Irish- and Italian-born immigrants a century ago was not nearly as large as the gap between today’s less-skilled immigrants and the native-born population. Though there has been a slowdown in the rate of increase of U.S. educational attainment, the last 100 years have seen enormous progress on this front. The ethnic attrition dynamic identified by Duncan and Trejo occurs in the broader context of assortative mating. If we assume that exogamy is more common among immigrants with levels of education that match or exceed that of the native-born population, the “selection effect” identified by Duncan and Trejo, in which the third-generation Hispanic population looks less successful than it really is when we exclude many children of mixed parentage, follows naturally. So if we believe that the kind of assimilation Jamelle identifies as part of a larger historical pattern is a good thing, we might want to craft an immigration policy that is biased towards immigrants with high levels of educational attainment. Restrictionists often identify the post-1920s “pause” in mass immigration as a key reason for the relative cultural homogeneity of midcentury America, and so many argue that another pause is appropriate so that we may allow the process of assimilation and intermarriage to take hold among post-1965 immigrants. My own view is that because skilled immigrants are well-suited to navigating a knowledge-intensive, highly-urbanized economy, there is no pressing need for a pause with this population — but there is a stronger cultural case for a pause with regards to the less-skilled population, as less-skilled immigrants currently residing in the U.S., along with non-college-educated second- and even some third-generation Americans, might benefit. (I think that we ought to emphasize skilled immigration over less-skilled immigration even if we’re indifferent to assimilation, for reasons I’ve discussed ad infinitum in this space.) 

It is often said that less-skilled native-born workers as a class aren’t necessarily harmed by less-skilled immigration, as these categories of workers are complementary. But of course the same can’t be said of immigrants and second-generation Americans with limited skills and limited English language proficiency, as these individuals are more likely to compete with new arrivals with a similar skill set. Some will argue that it is foolish to place too high a priority on these earlier arrivals, as their moral claims are greatly outweighed by those of new arrivals. Others will point to the fact that earlier arrivals tend to prefer a more open immigration policy, and so it’s not my place to devise policy on their behalf. These are perfectly sound observations, and different people are going to weigh the competing moral claims differently.