The United States prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, and the nation has a long history of successfully absorbing people from across the globe. The successful integration of immigrants and their children contributes to economic vitality and to a vibrant and ever-changing culture. Americans have offered opportunities to immigrants and their children to better themselves and to be fully incorporated into U.S. society, and in exchange immigrants have become Americans—embracing an American identity and citizenship, protecting the United States through service in its military, fostering technological innovation, harvesting its crops, and enriching everything from the nation’s cuisine to its universities, music, and art.
2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which began the most recent period of mass immigration to the United States. This act abolished the restrictive quota system of the 1920s and opened up legal immigration to all the countries in the world, helping to set the stage for a dramatic increase in immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. At the same time, it limited the numbers of legal immigrants coming from countries in the Western Hemisphere, thus establishing restrictions on immigrants across the U.S. southern border and setting the stage for the rise in undocumented border crossers. Although the Immigration Act of 1965 exemplified the progressive ideals of the 1960s, the system it engendered may also hinder some immigrants’ and their descendants’ prospects for integration.
Today, the 41 million immigrants in the United States represent 13.1 percent of the U.S. population. The U.S.-born children of immigrants, the
second generation, represent another 37.1 million people, or 12 percent of the population. Thus, together the first and second generations account for one out of four members of the U.S. population. Whether they are successfully integrating is therefore a pressing and important question.
To address this question, the Panel on the Integration of Immigrants into American Society was charged with (1) summarizing what is known about how immigrants and their descendants are integrating into American society; (2) discussing the implications of this knowledge for informing various policy options; and (3) identifying any important gaps in existing knowledge and data availability. Another panel appointed under the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will be publishing its final report later this year; that report will examine the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration and present projections of immigration and of related economic and fiscal trends in the future. That report will complement but does not overlap with this panel’s work on immigrant integration.
The panel defines integration as the process by which members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another. That process, which has both economic and sociocultural dimensions, begins with the immigrant generation and continues through the second generation and beyond. The process of integration depends upon the participation of immigrants and their descendants in major social institutions such as schools and the labor market, as well as their social acceptance by other Americans. Greater integration implies movement toward parity of critical life opportunities with the native-born American majority. Integration may make immigrants and their children better off and in a better position to fully contribute to their communities, which is no doubt a major objective for the immigrants themselves. If immigrants come to the United States with very little education and become more like native-born Americans by getting more education, they are considered more integrated. They are also considered better off, because more education improves their well-being. However, integration does not always improve well-being. For example, immigrants on average come to the United States with better health than native-born Americans, but as they integrate in other ways, they also become less healthy. Therefore, their well-being (as measured by health) declines. So, to the extent that available data allow, the panel measured two separate dimensions of change—integration and well-being. The first dimension, integration, speaks to whether immigrants and the native-born become more like one another; the second dimension, well-being, examines whether immigrants are better or worse off over time.
Integration is a two-way process: it happens both because immigrants experience change once they arrive and because native-born Americans change in response to immigration. The process of integration takes time, and the panel measured the process in two ways: for the first generation,
by examining what happens in the time since arrival; for the second and third generations—the children and grandchildren of immigrants—by comparisons across generations.
PATTERNS OF INTEGRATION
Overall, the panel found that current immigrants and their descendants are integrating into U.S. society. This report documents the course and extent of integration, and the report’s chapters draw 18 formal conclusions with regard to integration. Across all measurable outcomes, integration increases over time, with immigrants becoming more like the native-born with more time in the country, and with the second and third generations becoming more like other native-born Americans than their parents were.
For the outcomes of educational attainment, income, occupational distribution, living above the poverty line, residential integration, and language ability, immigrants also increase their well-being as they become more similar to the native-born and improve their situation over time. Still, the well-being of immigrants and their descendants is highly dependent on immigrant starting points and on the segment of American society—the racial and ethnic groups, the legal status, the social class, and the geographic area—into which they integrate. There are three notable outcomes where well-being declines as immigrants and their descendants converge with native-born Americans: health, crime, and the percentage of children growing up with two parents. We discuss these outcomes below.
Despite large differences in starting points among the first generation, there has been strong intergenerational progress in educational attainment. Second generation members of most contemporary immigrant groups meet or exceed the schooling level of typical third+ generation native-born Americans. This is true for both men and women.
However, this general picture masks important variations between and within groups. One difference from earlier waves of immigration is the large percentage of highly skilled immigrants now coming to the United States. More than a quarter of the foreign-born now has a college education or more, and they contribute a great deal to the U.S. scientific and technical workforce. These immigrants’ children also do exceptionally well educationally and typically attain the top tiers of the occupational distribution.
Other immigrants start with exceptionally low levels of education. This is particularly true for foreign-born Mexicans and Central Americans, who on average have less than 10 years of education. These immigrants’ children progress a great deal relative to their parents, with an average education of
more than 12 years, but they do not reach parity with the general population of native-born. This outcome mostly reflects the low levels of schooling, English proficiency, and other forms of human capital their parents bring to the United States.
Employment and Earnings
Immigrant men have higher employment rates than the second and higher generations. This employment advantage is especially dramatic among the least educated immigrants, who are much more likely to be employed than comparably educated native born men, indicating that they are filling an important niche in our economy. For second+ generation men, the trajectories vary by ethnicity and race. By this measure, Asian men are successfully integrating with the non-Hispanic white population, and Hispanic men are making gains once their lower education is taken into account. However, second generation blacks appear to be integrating with the general black native-born population, where higher education does not translate into higher employment rates. Among women the pattern is reversed, with a substantially lower employment rate for immigrants than for the native-born, but employment rates for second and higher generation women moving toward parity with the general native-born population, regardless of race.
Foreign-born workers’ earnings improve relative to the native-born the longer they reside in the United States. These overall patterns, however, are still shaped by racial and ethnic stratification. Earnings assimilation is considerably slower for Hispanic (predominantly Mexican) immigrants than for other immigrants. And although Asian immigrants and their descendants appear to do just as well as native-born whites, these comparisons become less favorable after controlling for education. Asian Americans’ schooling advantage can obscure the fact that, at least among men, they tend to earn somewhat less than third+ generation non-Hispanic whites with the same level of education.
The occupational distributions of the first and second generations reveal a picture of intergenerational improvement similar to that for education and earnings. The groups concentrated in low-status occupations in the first generation improve their occupational position substantially in the second generation, although they do not reach parity with third+ generation Americans. Second generation children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America have made large leaps in occupational terms: 22 percent of second generation Mexican men and 31 percent of second generation
men from Central America in 2003-2013 were in professional or managerial positions. Like their foreign-born fathers, second generation men were overrepresented in service jobs, although they have largely left agricultural work. Second generation Mexican men were also less likely than their immigrant parents to take jobs in the informal sector and were more likely to receive health and retirement benefits through their employment. The occupational leap for second generation women for this period was even greater, and the gap separating them from later generation women narrowed greatly.
The robust representation of the first and second generations across the occupational spectrum in these analyses implies that the U.S. workforce has been welcoming immigrants and their children into higher-level jobs in recent decades. This pattern of workforce integration appears likely to continue as the baby boom cohorts complete their retirement over the next two decades.
Immigrants are more likely to be poor than the native-born, even though their labor force participation rates are higher and they work longer hours on average. The poverty rate for foreign-born persons was 18.4 percent in 2013, compared to 13.4 percent for the native-born. However, the poverty rate declined over generations, from over 18 percent for first generation adults (immigrants) to 13.6 percent in the second generation and 11.5 percent by the third+ generation. These overall patterns vary by race and ethnic group, with a troubling rise in poverty for the black second+ generations relative to the black first generation. The panel’s analysis also shows progress stalling among Asian Americans between the second and third generations. Overall, first generation Hispanics have the highest poverty rates, but there is much progress from the first to the second generation.
Over time most immigrants and their descendants gradually become less segregated from the general population of native-born whites and more dispersed across regions, cities, communities, and neighborhoods. Earnings and occupation explain some but not all of the high levels of foreign-born segregation from other native-born residents. Length of residence also matters: recently arrived immigrants often choose to live in areas with other immigrants and thus have higher levels of residential segregation from native-born whites than immigrants who have been in the country for 10-20 years. Race plays an independent role—Asians are the least segregated
in metropolitan areas from native-born whites, followed by Hispanics and then black immigrants, who are the most segregated from native-born whites. New research also points to an independent effect of legal status, with the undocumented being more segregated than other immigrants.
Language diversity in the United States has grown as the immigrant population has increased and become more varied. Today, about 85 percent of the foreign-born population speaks a language other than English at home. The most prevalent language (other than English) is by far Spanish: 62 percent of all immigrants speak Spanish at home.
However, a more accurate measure of language integration is English-language proficiency, or how well people say they speak English. There is evidence that integration is happening as rapidly or faster now than it did for the earlier waves of mainly European immigrants in the 20th century. Today, many immigrants arrive already speaking English as a first or second language. Currently, about 50 percent of the foreign-born in surveys report they speak English “very well” or “well,” while less than 10 percent say they speak English “not at all.” There are significant differences in English proficiency by region and country of birth: immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean generally report lower rates of English-language proficiency than immigrants from other regions, and they are most likely to say they speak English “not at all.”
The second+ generations are generally acquiring English and losing their ancestors’ language at roughly the same rates as their historical predecessors, with English monolingualism usually occurring within three generations. Spanish speakers and their descendants, however, appear to be acquiring English and losing Spanish more slowly than other immigrant groups. Yet even in the large Spanish-speaking concentration in Southern California, Mexican Americans’ transition to English dominance is all but complete by the third generation; only 4 percent still speak primarily Spanish at home, although 17 percent reported they can speak Spanish very well.
Despite the positive outlook for linguistic integration, the barriers to English proficiency, particularly for low-skilled, poorly educated, residentially segregated, and undocumented immigrant populations, are cause for concern. Funding for English-as a second-language classes has declined even as the population of English-language learners (ELL) has grown. The number of children who are ELL has grown substantially in recent decades, presenting challenges for many school systems. Since 1990, the school-age ELL population has grown at a much faster rate than the school-age population overall. Today, 9 percent of all students in the K-12 system are ELL. Their relative concentration varies widely by state and district. Overall
resources for education in English as a second language are limited for both adults and children.
Foreign-born immigrants have better infant, child, and adult health outcomes than the U.S.-born population in general and better outcomes than U.S.-born members of their ethnic group. In comparison with native-born Americans, the foreign-born are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and all cancers combined; they experience fewer chronic health conditions, lower infant mortality rates, lower rates of obesity, and fewer functional limitations. Immigrants also have a lower prevalence of depression and of alcohol abuse.
Foreign-born immigrants live longer, too. They have a life expectancy of 80.0 years, 3.4 years more than the native-born population, and this immigrant advantage holds across all the major ethnoracial categories. Over time and generations, these advantages decline as their health status converges with the native-born.
Even though immigrants generally have better health than native-born Americans, they are disadvantaged when it comes to receiving health care to meet their preventive and medical health needs. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) seems likely to improve this situation for many poor immigrants, but undocumented immigrants are specifically excluded from all coverage under the ACA and are not entitled to any nonemergency care in U.S. hospitals.
Increased prevalence of immigrants is associated with lower crime rates—the opposite of what many Americans fear. Among men ages 18-39, the foreign-born are incarcerated at a rate that is one-fourth the rate for the native-born. Cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have much lower rates of crime and violence than comparable nonimmigrant neighborhoods. This phenomenon is reflected not only across space but also over time. There is, however, evidence that crime rates for the second and third generation rise to more closely match the general population of native-born Americans. If this trend is confirmed, it may be an unwelcome aspect of integration.
The panel’s analysis indicates that immigrant family-formation patterns change over time. Immigrant divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates start out much lower than the rates for native-born Americans generally,
but over time and over generations these rates increase, while the likelihood of living in extended families with multiple generations under one roof declines. Thus immigrant children are much more likely to live in families with two parents than are third generation children. This is true overall and within all of the major ethnic and racial groups. Two-parent families provide children with a number of important advantages: they are associated with lower risks of poverty, more effective parenting practices, and lower levels of stress than are households with only one or no parents. The prevalence of two-parent families continues to be high for second generation children, but the percentage of children in two-parent families declines substantially between the second and third generations, converging toward the percentage for other native-born families. Since single-parent families are more likely to be impoverished, this is a disadvantage going forward.
CAUSES FOR CONCERN
The panel identified three causes for concern in the integration of immigrants: the role of legal status in slowing or blocking the integration of not just the undocumented but also their U.S.-citizen children; racial patterns in immigrant integration and the resulting racial stratification in the U.S. population; and the low percentage of immigrants who naturalize, compared with other major immigrant-receiving countries.
As the evidence examined by the panel made clear, an immigrant’s legal status is a key factor in that individual’s integration trajectory. Immigration statuses fall into four rough categories: permanent, temporary, discretionary, and undocumented. These statuses lie on a continuum of precariousness and security, with differences in the right to remain in the United States, rights to benefits and services from the government, ability to work, susceptibility to deportation, and ability to participate fully in the economic, political, social, and civic life of the nation. In recent decades, these statuses have multiplied due to changes in immigration policy, creating different paths and multiplying the roadblocks to integration into American society.
People often transition between different immigration statuses. Over half of those receiving lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in 2013 were already residing in the United States and adjusted their status to permanent from a visa that allowed them to work or study only temporarily in the United States. Many immigrants thus begin the process of integration into American society—working, sending their children to school, interacting with neighbors, and making friends—while living with a temporary status
that does not automatically put them on the path to LPR or citizenship. Likewise, some undocumented immigrants live here for decades with no legal status while putting down deep roots in American society. Currently, there are insufficient data on changes in the legal status of immigrants over time to measure the presumably large effects of those trajectories on the process of integration.
Since the mid-1990s, U.S. immigration policy has become more punitive toward the undocumented, and interior enforcement policies have attempted to prevent their employment and long-term residence in this country. An estimated 11.3 million (26%) of the foreign-born in the United States are undocumented. Their number rose rapidly from the 1990s through 2007, reaching a peak of 12.2 million, but then fell with the Great Recession in 2008 and a sharp decline in immigration from Mexico, plateauing at 11.3 million since then. Although undocumented immigrants come from all over the globe and one in ten undocumented immigrants come from Asia, more than three-quarters are from North and Central America. The majority of the undocumented residents in the United States today—about 52 percent—are from Mexico.
It is a political, not a scientific, question whether we should try to prevent the integration of the undocumented or provide a path to legalization, and thus not within this panel’s purview. However, the panel did find evidence that the current immigration policy has several effects on integration. First, it has only partially affected the integration of the undocumented, many of whom have lived in the United States for decades. The shift in recent years to a more intense regime of enforcement has not prevented the undocumented from working, but it has coincided with a reduction in their wages. Undocumented students are less likely than other immigrants to graduate from high school and enroll in college, undermining their long-term earnings capacity.
Second, the immigration impasse has led to a plethora of laws targeting the undocumented at local, state, and federal levels. These laws often contradict each other, creating variation in integration policies across the country. Some states and localities provide in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, some provide driver’s licenses, and some are declaring themselves to be sanctuary cities. In other localities, there are restrictive laws, such as prohibitions on renting housing to undocumented immigrants or aggressive local enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Finally, the current system includes restrictions on the receipt of public benefits, and those restrictions have created barriers to the successful integration of the U.S.-citizen children of the undocumented, even though, as citizens, it is in the country’s best interest that these children integrate successfully. Today, 5.2 million children in the United States reside with at least one undocumented immigrant parent. The vast majority of these
children—4.5 million—are U.S.-born citizens. Included in this total are almost 7 percent of students in kindergarten through high school (K-12), presenting important challenges for schools, including behavioral issues among these children. Policies designed to block the integration of undocumented immigrants or individuals with a temporary status can have the unintended effect of halting or hindering the integration of U.S. citizens and LPRs in mixed-status families. Laws are often designed to apply to individuals, but their effects ripple through households, families, and communities, with measurable long-term negative impacts on children who are lawful U.S. citizens.
The panel found that patterns of immigrant integration are shaped by race. Although there is evidence of integration and improvement in socioeconomic outcomes for blacks, Latinos, and Asians, their perceived race still matters, even after controlling for all their other characteristics. Black immigrants and their descendants are integrating with native-born non-Hispanic whites at the slowest rate. Asian immigrants and their descendants are integrating with native-born non-Hispanic whites most quickly, and Latinos are in between. The panel found some evidence of racial discrimination against Latinos and some evidence that their overall trajectories of integration are shaped more by the large numbers of undocumented in their group than by a process of racialization. At this time, it is not possible with the data available to the panel to definitively state whether Latinos are experiencing a pattern of racial exclusion or a pattern of steady progress that could lead to a declining significance of group boundaries. What can be reasonably concluded is that progress in reducing racial discrimination and disparities in socioeconomic outcomes in the United States will improve the outcomes for the native-born and immigrants alike.
Birthright citizenship is one of the most powerful mechanisms of formal political and civic inclusion in the United States. Yet naturalization rates in the United States lag behind other countries that receive substantial numbers of immigrants. The overall level of citizenship among working-age immigrants (15-64 years old) who have been living in the United States for at least 10 years is 50 percent. After adjustments to account for the undocumented population in the United States, a group that is barred by law from citizenship, the naturalization rate among U.S. immigrants rises slightly but is still well below many European countries and far lower than other traditional receiving countries such as Australia and Canada. This
is surprising since the vast majority of immigrants, when surveyed, report wanting to become a U.S. citizen. Moderate levels of naturalization in the United States appear to stem not from immigrants’ lack of interest or even primarily from the bureaucratic process of applying for citizenship but from somewhere in the process by which individuals translate their motivation to naturalize into action. Further research is needed to clearly identify the barriers to naturalization. Low naturalization rates have important implications for political integration because the greatest barriers to immigrants’ political participation, especially participation in elections, are gaining citizenship and registering to vote after becoming a citizen.
EFFECT OF IMMIGRATION ON SOCIETY
Previous immigration from around the globe changed the United States. It is much more difficult to see and to measure the ways in which immigration is changing the country now because it is notoriously hard to measure cultural changes while they are occurring. It is also difficult because the United States is a very heterogeneous society already, and new immigration adds to that diversity. It is difficult to measure the society that immigrants are integrating into when the society itself does not remain static. The major way in which the panel outlines how immigration has affected American society is by documenting the growth in racial, ethnic, and religious diversity in the U.S. population, which has resulted in increased intergroup contact and the transformation of American communities and institutions.1
In 1970, 83 percent of the U.S. population was non-Hispanic white; today, that proportion is about 62 percent, and immigration is responsible for much of that change, both directly through arrival of foreign-born immigrants and indirectly through the higher birth rates of immigrants and their children. Hispanics have grown from just over 4.5 percent of the total U.S. population in 1970 to about 17 percent today. Asians are currently the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country, as immigration from Mexico has declined; Asians represented less than 1 percent of the population in 1970 but are 6 percent today. Black immigration has also grown. In 1970, blacks were just 2.5 percent of the foreign-born; today, they are 9 percent of immigrants residing in the United States.
Ethnic and racial diversity resulting from immigration is no longer limited to a few states and cities that have histories of absorbing immigrants. Today, new immigrants are moving throughout the country, including into areas that have not witnessed a large influx of immigrants for centuries.
1 As discussed above, this report does not examine the effects of immigration on the U.S. economy. That is the charge of the other National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel.
This new pattern has changed the landscape of immigration. The states with the fastest growth rates of immigrant population today are primarily in the South. The presence of racial- and religious-minority immigrants in new localities and in nonmetropolitan areas raises new challenges of integration and incorporation for many communities and small towns that are unaccustomed to substantial minority and immigrant populations. At the same time, there are many localities in new destination areas that have adopted welcoming strategies to encourage immigrant workers and foster their integration into the community.
In urban areas across the country, immigrants and descendants have been “pioneer integrators” of previously all-white or all-black spaces. The result is that many neighborhoods are more diverse now than they have ever been, and the number of all-white census tracts has fallen. Yet racial segregation is still prevalent throughout the country, with blacks experiencing the most segregation from whites, followed by segregation of Hispanics and then Asians from the non-Hispanic white population.
While three-quarters of all immigrants are Christian, immigration is also bringing new religious diversity to the United States. Four percent of the foreign-born are Muslim, and although Muslim immigrants are doing better than the national average in education and income, they do report encountering high levels of prejudice and discrimination. Religious diversity is especially notable among Asian immigrants, with sizable numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and those who do not identify with any religion. Participation in religious organizations helps immigrants and may shore up support for the religious organizations they support, even as native-born Americans’ religious affiliation declines.
Immigrants have also contributed enormously to America’s shifting patterns of racial and ethnic mixing in intimate and marital relationships. Marriages between the native-born and immigrants appear to have increased significantly over time. Today, about one of every seven new marriages is an interracial or interethnic marriage, more than twice the rate a generation ago. Perhaps as a result, the social and cultural boundaries between native-born and foreign-born populations in the United States are much less clearly defined than in the past. Moreover, second and third generation individuals from immigrant minority populations are far more likely to marry higher generation native-born partners than are their first generation counterparts. These intermarriages also contribute to the increase in mixed-race Americans.
An additional important effect of intermarriage is on family networks. A recent survey reported that more that 35 percent of Americans said that one of their “close” kin is of a different race. Integration of immigrants and their descendants is a major contributor to this large degree of intermixing. In the future, the lines between what Americans today think of as separate
ethnoracial groups may become much more blurred. Indeed, immigrants become Americans not just by integrating into our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, but also into our families. Very quickly, “they” become “us.”
THE NEED FOR BETTER DATA
The panel was handicapped in its work by the dearth of available longitudinal data to measure immigrant integration. This is a long-standing problem that has become increasingly critical as immigration to the United States has increased and as immigrants have become dispersed throughout the country. The panel made several specific recommendations for data collection that are outlined in detail in Chapter 10. These include the following:
- That the federal government collect data on generational status by adding a question on birthplace of parents to the American Community Survey, in order to measure the integration of the second generation.
- That the Current Population Survey test and if possible add a question on legal statuses at entry or at present, leaving those in undocumented status to be identified by process of elimination, and that other major national surveys with large numbers of immigrants also add a question of this type to identify legal status.
- That any legislation to regularize immigrant status in the future for the undocumented include a component to survey those who apply and to follow them to understand the effects of legalization.
- That administrative data held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on visa type be linked to census and other government data, as other countries have done, and that such data be made available to researchers in secure data enclaves. Such data would significantly help federal, state, and local officials understand and develop policies to improve the integration of immigrants into U.S. society.