Co-authors Philip Kasinitz, Professor of Sociology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York; John H. Mollenkopf, Professor of Public Policy, The Graduate Center, City University of New York; commentators Demetrios Papademetriou, President, Migration Policy Institute;Tamar Jacoby, President, ImmigrationWorks USA. Cosponsored by the Migration Policy Institute.

The environment for the wave of immigrants who entered the United States during the early twentieth century was quite different from the one encountered by immigrants who arrived during the last decades of that century. The earlier immigrant population, predominantly European, found an industrializing nation eager for unskilled immigrant labor. More recent immigrants have been largely non-European and have had to contend with racial barriers and a nation that places more value on educated labor. As a result, there has been concern about the ability of their descendents to integrate successfully into American society.

In a Division of United States Studies' discussion of Inheriting the City, authors John Mollenkopf and Philip Kasinitz asserted that the second generation has in fact been able to achieve a relatively high level of accomplishment, negotiating a comfortable balance between U.S. society and the culture of their parents. This conclusion is based on their 1998-2003 study of New Yorkers aged 22-32. The study included a survey of a random sample of residents in four New York City boroughs and the inner suburbs, ethnographic studies in colleges and workplaces, and in-person interviews with a sample of New York's immigrant populations (Chinese, West Indians, Dominicans, South Americans, and Russian Jews). It is particularly important that the authors conducted companion studies of native-born populations (African Americans, Puerto Ricans and whites).

As did the children of earlier immigrants, this generation of immigrant children has surpassed its parents' achievements. This is particularly true of the children of Chinese and Russian Jewish immigrants, who have achieved higher levels of education and earnings than native-born whites. Unlike their parents, who found economic success within ethnic enclaves, many of the second generation immigrants have moved into the mainstream economy. They live in a pluralistic world and, not feeling torn between their sending countries and the United States, are comfortable with their identity. Their upward mobility and relatively low arrest rates indicate that for the most part, they have avoided the pitfalls experienced by disadvantaged populations.

Still, the second generation has not followed the traditional immigration model in all areas. While immigrants from South America and the Dominican Republic earn about as much as white Americans and have a higher education level than that of African Americans and Puerto Ricans, their level of educational attainment is lower than that of whites. Mollenkopf suggested that the reason is that darker-skinned immigrants must contend with the same systemic racial barriers that their native counterparts have faced. Even with their relatively high level of education and earnings, many of today's immigrants have generally not become politically and civically engaged.

The immigrant experience in New York City contains policy implications for the current immigration debate. Immigrants who entered the country during the late 1900s generally arrived legally or obtained legal status rather easily, so their children have not been disadvantaged by ambiguous legal status. In addition, the city has numerous second-chance mechanisms to help the poor and disadvantaged get back on track when they have made mistakes. It is to the country's benefit, Kasinitz emphasized, to have policies that provide a route to legalization and do not leave immigrant populations at a disadvantage.

While the debate in Washington has been concerned with immigrants being too attached to their sending countries and not investing in the United States, the authors of Inheriting the City have found that immigrants have been able to preserve their cultural identities and still successfully integrate into U.S. society. Demetrios Papademetriou questioned, however, whether further study will show that factors such as discrimination, economic recession or barriers to legal status are impeding the success of subsequent generations. Papademetriou argued that the policy lessons are, first, that all levels of government must be involved in the integration process. At the same time, official policies are insufficient, he contended, and the whole society must be engaged in a process to aid immigrants and other poor people. When immigrants become social and economic successes, Papademetriou said, we as a nation succeed. Tamar Jacoby added that this generation of immigrants and their children are redefining the meaning of "assimilation" and "integration," neither repudiating their cultures nor feeling uncomfortable in American society. She viewed the anti-immigrant backlash as having been largely spent since efforts to reform federal immigration policy failed in June, 2007. Still, the American public remains unwilling to allocate resources for the benefit of specific groups. Rather than ask the electorate to enact special policies for immigrant integration, she suggested, policy-makers must emphasize a balanced approach that asks immigrants to accept our political values in exchange for our providing them with the tools with which they can help themselves.

Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of United States Studies 202-691-4147