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Born in the U.S.A.

by Reihan Salam

Children of immigrants face — and present — a unique set of challenges

One of the most important questions America will face over the coming decades is how to successfully integrate the children of immigrants. As of 2013, there were 17.4 million children in the United States living with at least one immigrant parent, or roughly 25 percent of all American children. That number is expected to climb to 30 percent by 2018. While the overall U.S. population has increased by 28 percent since 1990, the number of children in immigrant households has increased by 112 percent.

These children face unique challenges. For one thing, they are far more likely than the children of native-born parents to be raised poor. Of those 17.4 million children in immigrant households, more than half — 9.5 million — live in families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. They constitute almost a third of American children living in such circumstances. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as almost 25 percent of the foreign-born labor force has less than a high-school education, a proportion five times higher than that of the native-born labor force. Moreover, 40 percent of adult immigrants have a low level of English literacy, and 48 percent have a low level of numeracy, rates far higher than for the native-born population. If there were no relationship between the low literacy and numeracy levels of adults and those of their children, this wouldn’t be a great concern. Unfortunately, there is — children of Americans with low levels of literacy and numeracy are significantly less likely to achieve academically than those with better-educated parents.

Go to almost any urban school district in the United States and you will find serious and dedicated teachers and administrators struggling to meet the needs of children raised in low-income immigrant households. These women and men understand better than anyone else the scale of the demographic transformation of America’s school-age population, a phenomenon that is largely invisible to parents who send their children to private schools or schools in affluent suburbs, let alone to adults with no children of their own. But this transformation is real, whether policymakers choose to address it or not.

So it is worth thinking through some of the ways in which children of immigrants are different from immigrants themselves. (A small share of the 17.4 million children of immigrants — 2.1 million — are also immigrants.) On the positive side of the ledger, these children are mastering English even when their parents find it difficult to do so. As a general rule, they have fared somewhat better than their parents as they’ve entered the work force, though outcomes vary considerably across ethnic groups.

Not all of the differences between immigrants and their children are encouraging, however. One example: the rates at which the children grow up to commit crime. Donald Trump’s incendiary claim that Mexican immigrants are bringing drugs and crime to the United States has drawn him much attention, but there is little to back up the idea of rampant immigrant criminality. As Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies has observed, Mexican immigrants are somewhat less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born counterparts: While 23 per 1,000 Mexican-born male immigrants between the ages of 18 and 40 are institutionalized, the same is true of 31 per 1,000 native-born males. But, while immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans, their children do so at rates that easily match those of other native-born Americans, and that in some cases are much higher. Camarota notes that while the share of native-born whites who are incarcerated is 16 per 1,000, the share among native-born Americans of Mexican ancestry is 38 per 1,000. 

What might this higher crime rate tell us? In an article published in Crime & Delinquency in 2014, the sociologists Alex Piquero, Bianca Bersani, Thomas Loughran, and Jeffrey Fagan present several hypotheses. One possibility is that because immigrants come to the United States in search of economic opportunity, they are more reluctant than their children to risk imprisonment. In a related vein, because poor immigrants often come from chaotic societies in which law-enforcement officials are often corrupt or unresponsive, they hold the U.S. criminal justice system in relatively high esteem. Piquero et al. posit that their children might view the police more cynically. Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that something has gone badly wrong with the assimilation of second-generation Americans growing up in straitened circumstances. 

Even if we leave crime aside, there are many reasons the children of immigrants might be more cynical about the promise of American life than their parents. Because they don’t have the same palpable, immediate experience of moving from a chaotic and impoverished country to a more stable and affluent one, they may be less inclined to feel grateful for the tarnished glories of America than their immigrant parents are. Like most native-born Americans, they perhaps see themselves as entitled to the benefits of living in a free and prosperous society, and are more frustrated by the distance between the American dream and the reality of life than they are hopeful about bridging it. Some of the children of less-skilled immigrants may feel inspired by seeing their parents work long hours for little pay. But it is easy to imagine that others, particularly those who aren’t high academic achievers, feel discouraged and fear that they will find it exceedingly difficult to make it into the middle class.

One way to better the lives of the children of immigrants would be to protect the economic interests of their parents, and this leads us to the debate about immigration levels. Advocates of increased immigration often note that less-skilled immigrants appear to have a negligible impact on the wages of less-skilled natives, and there is good reason to believe that they increase the earnings of skilled natives. Yet such advocates rarely address the fact that, as the economists Giovanni Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano have shown, less-skilled new immigrants have a strongly negative effect on the wages of earlier immigrants. One could say that since the earlier immigrants are better off than they would have been in their native countries, we should simply be indifferent to the fact that their wages suffer from further immigration. But this line of thinking neglects the extreme poverty of many of these earlier immigrants, and the fact that when they fail to climb the occupational ladder, they are not the only ones who suffer — their children do, too. The experience of growing up in a household with parents whose wages are steadily increasing  and who are climbing the economic ladder is likely to be very different from that of growing up in a household with parents whose wages never increase, no matter how hard they try.

Mass immigration doesn’t just have an economic impact on earlier immigrants and their children, either. It also has a cultural impact. In an ambitious study of later-generation Mexican Americans, Tomás Jiménez, a sociologist at Stanford, found that the ongoing influx of Mexican immigrants has profoundly shaped the ethnic identity of second- and third-generation Mexican Americans. Consider the case of “white ethnics,” the descendants of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century. Once immigration levels had sharply declined, the salience of ethnic identity declined as well. Second- and third-generation Italians and Irish moved from ethnically concentrated neighborhoods to mixed neighborhoods. They intermarried with members of other ethnic groups. Over time, their ethnicity became more symbolic than real. What exactly drove this assimilation process? Jiménez argues that the virtual cessation of European immigration reduced the level of contact that American-born ethnics had with members of their own group who had a stronger sense of ethnic identity.

To make his case, Jiménez points to the ways in which Mexican immigration has produced almost the opposite dynamic among native-born Mexican Americans. When a large proportion of people of Mexican descent are immigrants rather than native-born Americans, other Americans are more likely to associate people of Mexican descent with foreignness. This sharpens the intergroup boundaries between all people of Mexican ancestry and non-Mexicans. At the same time, Mexican immigrants have a stronger sense of group identity than later-generation Mexican Americans, which creates an intragroup boundary separating the less assimilated from the more assimilated. Mexican Americans who do not live up to the former group’s view of what it means to be ethnically authentic are often ostracized as outsiders, a form of social pressure that can be quite potent. This contributes to the social isolation of native-born Mexican Americans from other Americans.

Though the dynamics that Jiménez identifies are particularly pronounced among Mexican Americans, they apply to members of several other ethnic groups as well. Essentially, we are seeing the “racialization” of second-generation Americans. There is a real danger that while better-educated Hispanics will integrate into the middle-class mainstream, their less-skilled co-ethnics will lead highly segregated lives as the demands of ethnic authenticity alienate them from other Americans.

Why exactly does this matter? It’s simple. Some group differences are seen as relatively innocuous and fleeting. Gregory Clark, an economist at UC Davis, has found that Americans of French descent are far less than half as likely to be medical doctors as are other Americans, a fact that he uses to suggest that these Americans tend to be of lower status than, say, those of Italian or Irish descent. Nevertheless, the status of French Americans is rarely considered an affront to justice. When group differences are understood as persistent racial differences, by contrast, they became far more potent. As NYU philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, “once groups have been mobilized along ethnoracial lines, inequalities between them, whatever their causes, provide bases for further mobilization.”

In America, racial politics has generally centered on the vast gulf separating blacks and whites. I suspect that, as the children of today’s less-skilled immigrants come of age, this will change. A new racial politics, informed by the experience of Hispanic Americans raised in segregated neighborhoods by impoverished immigrant parents, will come to the fore. And though I can’t predict precisely what form this new racial politics will take, it seems likely to be very contentious indeed.

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