The Agenda

Jacob Vigdor on Immigrant Assimilation

My colleagues at the Manhattan Institute have just released a new report by Jacob Vigdor, an economist and public policy scholar at Duke, comparing trends in immigrant assimilation in a number of countries in North America and Europe.

Across a number of categories, Vigdor identifies a fairly consistent pattern: Canada outperforms the United States and the United States outperforms European nations:

* Muslim immigrants, identified by data on religion in some nations and by country of birth in others, are most integrated in Canada, followed closely by the United States.

* Muslim immigrants in Italy and Switzerland are much less assimilated than Mexican and Central American immigrants are in the United States.

* Muslim immigrants’ standing in Spain is roughly equal to the standing of Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States.

* The United States’ ranking behind Canada but ahead of European nations also holds for immigrants from China and Southeast Asia. Assimilation in the United States is ahead of all but one European country for immigrants from India and Eastern Europe.

Vigdor’s findings also suggest that the U.S. has much to learn from Canada’s immigration policy, which places a heavier emphasis on attracting skilled migrants. I’m reminded of a provocative argument Jason Richwine made in The American in August of 2009: because IQ is strongly correlated with altruism, civic participation, and an inclination towards cooperative, forward-looking behavior, he suggested the following:

Some clear policy implications follow. What we want are immigrants who are most likely to be cooperative, trustworthy, and concerned about the welfare of the community. No one has any simple, reliable way of ascertaining whether an individual possesses these qualities. But we do have a simple, reliable way of measuring another quality that is correlated with them—cognitive ability, as measured by an IQ test or an educational credential. The smarter our immigrants are, the more likely they are to trust and cooperate, and the less likely they are to subtract from our existing stock of social capital. Selecting immigrants for intelligence (or a proxy indicator like education) could lessen the negative impact of ethnic diversity on American society.

This proposal works especially well in the broader debate over immigration. Many economists have advocated that the United States de-emphasize family preferences in favor of skill-based selection, much as Canada and Australia have already done. Though few people ever describe “skill” selection as a search for people with high IQs, immigrants with advanced degrees and sought-after talents are usually quite intelligent.

Vigdor makes no such suggestion, but his report does find that “the link between immigrants’ level of education and their degree of assimilation is strong.”

Update: I am no longer rushing to an appointment, so allow me to dive a bit deeper into Vigdor’s report.

As Richwine suggests, educational attainment seems to facilitate assimilation, but the data is incomplete:

Figure 25 shows the educational attainment of foreign-born residents of five nations: Canada, the United States, France, Spain, and Italy. Educational attainment is not included in the computation of the international assimilation index because it is not consistently recorded in a sufficient number of countries. For these five nations, though, the link between immigrant educational attainment and assimilation appears strong. In Canada, nearly 33 percent of foreign-born adults have completed some form of postsecondary education. By comparison, only 23 percent of foreign-born adults in the United States can boast of the same distinction. The share of immigrants who have not completed primary education is also higher in the United States than it is in Canada—9 percent against 5 percent.

While immigrants in the United States fall short of those in Canada, they compare favorably with those in the three European countries portrayed. In France, nearly 20 percent of foreign-born residents have a postsecondary degree, but 33 percent have not completed primary education. Immigrants residing in Spain and Italy are less likely to fall on the extreme low end of the educational scale, but only 10 percent possess a college degree.

In France, migrants from the Maghreb have had a fairly difficult time assimilating while Iranians, a predominantly Muslim group, have had a notably easier time. One assumes this reflects the educational attainment of migrants, among other things. The polarization of educational attainment and residential concentration are undoubtedly part of the picture.

In these five countries, at least, ranking by proportion of immigrants with a college degree is exactly the same as ranking by assimilation—even though the former piece of information was not considered in creating the latter. Education can provide many of the tools that immigrants need to blend in to their adopted societies—from basic linguistic ability to skills required in the labor market.

Were assimilation the only goal of immigration policy, a move toward Canadian-style naturalization and admission rules would appear quite beneficial. Assimilation is not, however, the only—or even the primary—purpose of immigration policy. Nonetheless, evidence that immigrants in the United States fare much better than those in other countries along a number of key dimensions underscores the need to recognize and preserve the successful components of the present immigration policy as we work to correct its flaws.

One could argue that insofar as our immigration policy should be motivated by humanitarian concerns, helping less-skilled migrants achieve upward mobility is rewarding in itself, though these migrants will find economic assimilation difficult. With this in mind, it would be interesting to know if the U.S. is better than its North Atlantic counterparts at fostering economic assimilation among the less-skilled. My first-cut guess is that the relative openness of the U.S. labor market is helpful in this regard, as is a favorable tax climate for high-earners: high average work hours translate into a demand for outsourced household production, a crucial economic toehold for less-skilled migrants.

In a section on “Assimilation by Immigrant Group,” Vigdor notes the following:

Groups differ dramatically not only in their overall level of assimilation but also in their pace of assimilation over the past decade. Immigrants from Mexico and two nearby Central American countries, El Salvador and Guatemala, are both poorly assimilated in an absolute sense and show few signs of progress over time. The two most assimilated groups, immigrants from Canada and the Philippines, show more positive trends, as do migrants born in India, Vietnam, and South Korea. Immigrants from Cuba are the only large group showing high assimilation levels in 2000 but little further assimilation since then. Immigrants from China constitute the fifth-most-assimilated group among the top ten and show little progress over time.

During a conversation with Phil Kasinitz, a well-regarded CUNY sociologist who works on immigrant assimilation, we discussed various migrant communities in New York and how their levels of educational attainment shaped assimilation outcomes. He noted that the educational attainment of Indian and Korean migrants tended to be quite high while that of Chinese migrants tended to be lower, yet the children of all of these groups tended to achieve a fairly high level of academic success. This could reflect the fact that the generation of Chinese migrants he described came of age in the pre-reform era, when Chinese public institutions were still reeling from the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, etc.

Overall, Figure 3 paints a picture of divergence over time. Immigrants from Asia and developed countries such as Canada appear to be integrating more rapidly than those from Mexico and Central America.

It is interesting that migrants from Asia and Canada would have comparable assimilation track records. This reminds me, at an angle, of the Charles Kenny thesis: we know that female literacy levels were quite high in South Korea before it achieved economic takeoff. “Developedness” in human indicators, like literacy and life expectancy, can be purchased at relatively low cost, and perhaps progress on these measures is a precursor to economic takeoff, though that hasn’t been true in much of sub-Saharan Africa, as Kenny observes — at least not yet. The point is that some Asian countries were “developed” before they were developed. I’m reminded of the Susan Mayer thesis in her wonderful book What Money Can’t Buy: children’s life chances seem to be shaped more by the transmission of cultural capital; beyond a certain basic level, increases in family income don’t make much of a difference. That’s an oversimplification, but the implications in the immigration context should be clear, and I think they dovetail with Richwine’s argument: bourgeois migrants, understood as migrants endowed with a portfolio of behaviors and skills we associate with the productive middle class, from poor countries can do as well as bourgeois migrants from rich countries.

It should be noted that Figure 3 does not present a truly longitudinal analysis, which would have followed consistent sets of immigrants over time. Rather, it provides a series of snapshots of each group in each year, notwithstanding turnover within the group. In this simple analysis, rapidly growing groups will appear to assimilate more slowly over time because they count a greater proportion of new arrivals within their group at the end of the time period. More longitudinally oriented analyses, such as those reported in earlier index reports, have documented important differences in assimilation rates for immigrants of different nationalities. Many of the differences can be attributed to legal status: undocumented immigrants are precluded from taking some steps toward integration and have weak incentives to take others. [Emphasis added]

This is an important point, though it is not clear that legalization is a silver bullet. Later in the paper, Vigdor writes:

Easier naturalization requirements are no guarantee of broader success in society. Immigrants in the Netherlands, for example, have naturalization rates that approach Canada’s, but foreign-born males have a lower employment rate there than they do in any country covered by this analysis. Thus, Canada’s permissive attitude toward citizenship, though helpful in pushing its immigrants toward the mainstream, alone cannot explain their success.

Vigdor is taking about a different issue, i.e., the ease with which legal permanent residents can become citizens, not formalizing the workers of unauthorized migrants. The size of the ethnic cohort — and, separately, its degree of concentration or segregation — seems very important. 

The divergence in degrees of assimilation by immigrant group is most starkly apparent in the case of economic assimilation. Figure 4 shows that the nation’s most prominent immigrant groups can be divided into three categories. One, consisting of immigrants from Canada, South Korea, the Philippines, and Cuba, has been fully integrated into the U.S. economy for at least a decade. These immigrants’ experiences during the recent recession cannot be meaningfully distinguished from those of natives. A second group, including immigrants from India, China, and Vietnam, is clearly on the path to full economic integration and managed to stay on it even during the recession years of 2008 and 2009. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who constitute the third category, arrived in the weakest economic position and experienced economic backsliding over the past decade. This decline is most pronounced among immigrants from Guatemala. Guatemalans are one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups of the past decade; in fact, their strong rate of growth may be the primary explanation for their lack of apparent progress over time.

I will add that ethnic concentration — the rise of ethnic enclaves, etc. — can be a mixed bag with respect to assimilation. In an obvious sense, it can retard assimilation by giving migrants a space within which they can socialize and engage in economic transactions with coethnics, thus mitigating the need to acquire language and other skills. But it can also ease the transition to a new society as migrants observe earlier migrants, and mimic their adaptive behavior.

Another really interesting passage:

Although the foreign data are not rich enough to permit computation of economic, cultural, and civic assimilation indexes, examination of specific indicators permits some insight into the variation in immigrant experiences according to destination. Figure 14 shows the difference in employment rates between native- and foreign-born males in the nine nations plus two more, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which collect information on employment status but lack other data items used to create the index. Here, positive numbers indicate that natives have higher employment rates, while negative numbers indicate that immigrants do. In most countries, native-born males are more likely to be employed than male immigrants. The most striking gaps occur in the Netherlands, where natives are more than 20 percentage points more likely to be employed than immigrants, and in France, where the gap stands at 10 percentage points. In the United States, native-born males are 5 percentage points more likely to be employed—a gap similar to those observed in the U.K. and Switzerland. Native-foreign employment gaps are fairly small in Canada, Austria, and Spain. In three southern European countries—Portugal, Greece, and Italy—immigrants actually boast higher employment rates than natives. To some extent, this tells us something about the employment patterns of natives; among native-born males in the countries studied, Italy’s have the lowest employment rate. Economically speaking, American immigrants do not suffer the difficulties of migrants in the Netherlands or France, nor do American natives’ work patterns exhibit the symptoms of endemic underemployment evident in certain southern European countries.

I’d be interested to see the results for northern European societies like (of course) Sweden and Denmark, where labor force participation rates are impacted by unusually high disability rates.

I also found Vigdor’s findings on Southeast Asian assimilation and female labor force participation across countries fascinating. This is a very rich document, and it merits close attention.


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