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Why Mexican-Americans are making more progress than other minorities

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 4:35 p.m. MDT

This Jan. 28, 2013, file photo shows Mexican immigrant Roberto Garcia, center, and son Alan, left, shop in Los Angeles. A recent report says adult children of immigrants as a group are integrating into U.S. society and doing generally better than newly arrived immigrants in median income, educational attainment and English fluency. The second-generation group also reports increased social ties, including intermarriage, with other racial and ethnic groups.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

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"Tiger Mother" Amy Chua claimed in a recent book that there's something special about Chinese immigrants, who usually end up ahead of other newcomers both economically and academically. But researchers in the University of California system say Chinese immigrants have a head start, but when it comes to making progress, Mexican immigrants lead the pack.

Lead researcher Jennifer Lee of the University of California-Irvine couches the question this way for Time magazine: "Who is more successful: a Mexican-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. with less than an elementary school education, and who now works as a dental hygienist? Or a Chinese-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and earned Ph.D. degrees, and who now works as a doctor?"

Lee and University of California Los Angeles sociologist Min Zhou looked at second-generation Mexican-, Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans whose folks immigrated to America. They say Mexican-Americans are the best-performing second generation because they start way behind other groups and do twice as well as their parents did on those economic and education measures. As a group, Mexican-Americans may not wind up as rich or educated as some Chinese-Americans do, but they have actually come much further, having started far behind.

Writes Slate's Mitch Moxley: "In a new book, The Triple Package, Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, argue that some groups — namely Chinese, Jews, Cubans and Nigerians — are more successful than others because they possess certain cultural traits that enable them to be," including a sense of cultural superiority, impulse control and insecurity. "They base their argument on an analysis of test scores, educational achievement, median household income, and other factors."

He continues, "The UC study, however, argues that it’s not any specific cultural trait that makes groups like Chinese-Americans more successful than others. Lee and Zhou say both Chinese-American and Mexican-American parents highly value education. Most parents do. But the reason Chinese-Americans get ahead is because they start ahead. Way ahead, in many cases."

Writes Lee: "The children of Mexican immigrants had the lowest levels of educational attainment of any of the groups in our study. Only 86 percent graduated from high school — compared to 100 percent of Chinese-Americans and 96 percent of native-born Anglos — and only 17 percent graduated from college. But their high school graduation rate was more than double that of their parents, only 40 percent of whom earned diplomas. And, the college graduation rate of Mexican immigrants’ children more than doubles that of their fathers (7 percent) and triples that of their mothers (5 percent)."

According to a release on the study by the Russell Sage Foundation, "The survey’s findings also underscore how different routes to social mobility influence immigrant life chances. This is especially evident in the area of education where most immigrants — although they arrive with various educational backgrounds — have adult children who not only surpass the achievements of their native-born comparison groups but also, in the case of Chinese and Korean immigrants, native-born whites. Findings in other dimensions of incorporation, such as median family income and residential assimilation, indicate a largely positive, if tenuous, intergenerational progression into the economic and social mainstream."

"One of the interesting things we found is that the Chinese exhibited the most successful outcomes, but they were the least likely to feel successful, in part because they measured their success against such high-achieving co-ethnics, other Chinese who have achieved extraordinary outcomes. And they're also measuring their success against their parents and their parents are often highly educated," Lee told China Daily.

"So if your father had a PhD and you only received a BA degree or a master's, you might not feel as successful because by comparison you haven't achieved as much," she said.

Lee has said that American Dream is not about what one attains, but rather the journey to attain it.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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