The US is currently experiencing its 4th wave of mass immigration. In 1970, only 5% of the US population was foreign-born; today, 15% of the population is foreign-born. The June 14th presentation on immigrant integration brought together leading experts to discuss how this new wave of American immigrants are integrating socially, economically and politically vis-à-vis specific, measurable indicators. Andrew Selee, Director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, and Marshall Kaplan, Executive Director of the Merage Foundations, opened the conference with a brief introduction of the panelists. They also recognized the many Merage American Dream Fellows who attended the event.
Tomás Jiménez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, initiated the discussion with an overview of some key findings of a comprehensive report he compiled for the Migration Policy Institute and the European University Institute, titled "Immigrants in the United States: How Well Are They Integrating into Society?". Dr. Jiménez argued that integration is both a process by which newcomers and host communities mutually adapt to one another, and an endpoint, when an individual's status as an immigrant, or as the descendent of immigrants, has a negligible negative impact on his or her opportunities.
In his paper, Dr. Jiménez evaluated integration through language, socioeconomic attainment, citizenship and political participation, residential locale and social life. He found that immigrants today are learning English faster than immigrants who arrived in the US one hundred years ago; more than 75% of immigrants who arrived in the US between 1980 and 2000 learned English within their first five years in the US. The socioeconomic progress of immigrants across generations is quite positive. However, some immigrant groups continue to experience education and occupational gaps, even within the second and third generation, when compared with native-born whites.
Randy Capps, a Senior Policy Analyst and demographer at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), focuses much of his research on immigrant children and families. Currently, one in four kids in the US live in immigrant families. Thus, argued Dr. Capps, how well immigrants are integrated into American society will greatly affect the success of this next generation. Dr. Capps also emphasized the important role that economic mobility and strong civil society have typically played in integration. The current recession and high unemployment in immigrant-dominated industries like construction present new challenges to this mode of integration.
Tamar Jacoby is the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners working to advance immigration reform. She spoke about some of the political challenges associated with immigration legislation. It is unlikely that we will see an increase in funding for immigrant integration programs given the current fiscal climate, but Ms. Jacoby believes that without spending money, the government can still act as a catalyst for creating a welcoming, respectful environment for immigrants through rhetoric and messaging. Ms. Jacoby explained that there are objective measures of integration, such as socioeconomic advancement, but there are also subjective measures, with respect to an immigrant's feeling of belonging. She warned that if we fail to pass comprehensive immigration reform we risk alienating a generation of capable young people who are immigrants or children of immigrants.
By Alison Lucas