Cowen & Rothschild: Assimilation of immigrants is not a problem in the U.S.

Published: Sunday, June 18 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Beneath the surface of the immigration debate is a debate about shared values. If we look at just three of those values — the English language, family and hard work — we see a higher level of Latino assimilation than is often presumed.

Despite claims to the contrary, census data show that most Latino immigrants learn and speak English quite well. Only about 2.5 percent of American residents speak Spanish but not English. The majority of residents of Spanish-speaking households speak English "very well."

Only 7 percent of the children of Latino immigrants speak Spanish as a primary language, and virtually none of their children do. Just as they did a century ago, immigrants largely come knowing little English. But they learn, and their children use it as a primary language. The United States is not becoming a bilingual nation.

A key indicator is the rise of the English-language Latino publication market. National magazines such as Hispanic Business (circulation 265,000) and Latina (circulation 2 million) are published in English. So are regional publications in cities including New York, Houston and Los Angeles. The reason is simple: English is becoming the language of Hispanic American commerce and culture. Just as few Jewish-interest magazines are published in Yiddish, in a generation most Latino-interest publications will probably be in English.

The family has long been the core social unit in America, and immigrants share that value. Census data show that 62 percent of immigrants over age 15 are married, compared to 52 percent of natives. Only 6 percent of Latino adults are divorced, compared with 10 percent of whites and 12 percent of African Americans. Latino immigrants are more likely to live in multigenerational households rather than just visiting grandparents a couple of times a year.

Most Latino immigrants want to become U.S. citizens. This process takes years, so recent immigrants are not a good barometer. But according to the 2000 Census, the majority of Latinos who entered the United States before 1980 have become citizens. And second-generation immigrants are more likely to marry natives than immigrants, further assimilating their children. The majority of immigrants also own their own homes, a key part of the American dream.

Immigrants from Central and South America share the American predilection for hard work and economic advancement. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Hispanic men are more likely than white men to be in the labor force. While immigrant Latinas initially lag behind native women, Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn of the National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that, despite initial inclinations to be stay-at-home moms, immigrant women quickly assimilate into the American work force.

The children of Latino immigrants do especially well at work. James P. Smith of Rand Corp. has shown that the children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants come very close to closing educational and income gaps with native whites. This is the same as it has always been in American immigration: Newcomers know what keeps them outside the mainstream and work hard to make sure their children do better. Immigrant Latino men make about half of what native whites do; their grandsons earn about 78 percent of the salaries of their native white friends.

Studies such as Smith's, because they track trends over time, are better at discovering patterns of assimilation than studies that compare immigrants in 2006 to natives. The latter present a snapshot; they can't demonstrate long-term trends.

It's true that recent immigrants have not been closing the wage gap as fast as earlier immigrants. But David Card of the University of California at Berkeley, John DiNardo of the University of Michigan and Eugena Estes of Princeton attribute this to an increase in inequality nationwide. Controlling for this, Latino immigrants are doing as well as immigrants a century ago.

Of course assimilation is not instantaneous. First-generation immigrants often hold on to the language and customs of the old country. Some immigrants ghettoize themselves and avoid the mainstream. But the overall patterns are far more positive than many recent debates have suggested.

Let's not forget that assimilating into American culture means taking the bad with the good. Robert Sampson of Harvard has found that immigrants are 45 percent less likely than third-generation Americans to commit violent crime. Divorce rates increase with each generation.

For all the rhetoric on both sides, the evidence deserves a closer look. Latino immigrants, like generations of immigrants before, are entering the mainstream of life in the United States. Ours is the best country in the world at assimilating immigrants. This should be a badge of honor, and one that we wear proudly.


Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and general director of its Mercatus Center. Daniel M. Rothschild is associate director of the Global Prosperity Initiative at the Mercatus Center.

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