Immigrants come to resemble native-born Americans over time, but integration not always smooth

Similarly, immigrant divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates start off much lower than native-born Americans, but over time and generations, they rise toward those for native-born families. This indicates that immigrant and second-generation children across all major ethnic and racial groups are more likely to live in families with two parents than are third-generation children. Because single-parent families are more likely to be impoverished, this is a disadvantage going forward, the report says.

The committee also identified several measurable outcomes for which immigrants’ well-being improves as they become better-integrated in U.S. society:

Education. Despite large differences in starting points among first-generation immigrant groups, their children meet or exceed the schooling level of typical third-generation and higher native-born Americans. More than one-quarter of the foreign-born have a college education or more and their children do exceptionally well in school. Yet some immigrant groups, such as Mexicans and Central Americans, have an average education of less than ten years, and although their children attain an average of over twelve years of education, the second generation does not reach parity with the general native-born population.

Language. More than 90 percent of Americans polled — whether native or foreign-born — say it is very or fairly important for those who live in the U.S. to be able to speak English. Available evidence indicates that today’s immigrants are learning English at the same rate or faster than earlier waves of immigrants. However, the U.S. education system is currently not equipped to handle the nearly five million English-language learners in the K-12 system — 9 percent of all students — and this may stymie the integration prospects of many immigrants.

Employment and earnings. Among first-generation immigrants, the male employment rate for all educational levels is 86 percent; this is higher than the general population of native-born Americans. The second-generation employment rate is slightly lower at 83 percent. Among women, the pattern is reversed with a 61 percent employment rate for immigrants, which is lower than the 72 percent for the native born. Immigrant men with the lowest level of education are more likely to be employed than comparable native-born men, indicating that immigrants appear to be filling low-skilled jobs that native-born Americans are not available or willing to take. Foreign-born workers’ earnings improve relative to native-born earnings the longer they live in the United States, though earnings assimilation is considerably slower for Hispanic (predominantly Mexican) immigrants than for others.

Occupations. First- and second-generation immigrants have robust representation across the occupational spectrum. Immigrant groups who are 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- and later-generation Americans. Second-generation Mexicans and Central Americans make a large leap, with 22 percent of second-generation Mexican men and 31 percent of second-generation Central American men in professional or managerial positions. The increase for second-generation women is even larger.

Poverty. Immigrants are more likely to be poor than the native-born, even though their labor force participation rates are higher and, on average, they work longer hours. The poverty rate for the foreign-born was 18.4 percent in 2013, compared with 13.8 percent for the native-born. Among adults, the poverty rate overall declines over generations, from over 18 percent in the first generation to 13.6 percent in the second generation and 11.5 percent in the third.

Residential integration. Over time, most immigrants and their descendants gradually become less segregated from native-born whites and more dispersed across regions, cities, and neighborhoods. 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 to 20 years. Race also plays an independent role: Asians are the least segregated from native-born whites in metropolitan areas, followed by Hispanics, and then black immigrants, who are the most segregated. Undocumented immigrants are also more spatially segregated than other immigrants.

It is a political, not scientific, question of whether the United States should try to prevent the integration of undocumented immigrants or provide a path to legalization, and thus not within the panel’s purview. However, the committee identified three barriers to immigrant integration that are of particular concern. First is the role of legal status in slowing or blocking the integration of not just the estimated 11.3 million undocumented but also their citizen children. A range of laws regarding undocumented immigrants at local, state, and federal levels often contradict each other, creating variation in integration trajectories across the country. For example, some states and localities provide in-state college tuition to public universities for undocumented immigrants or provide driver’s licenses, while others prohibit renting housing to this class of immigrant.

Second, patterns of immigrant integration are shaped by race, and there is ongoing racial stratification in socio-economic outcomes for immigrants and their children. Black immigrants and their children are integrating with non-Hispanic whites at the slowest rate, despite black immigrants’ relatively high educational attainment and employment rates. Last, the low percentage of immigrants who naturalize — only 50 percent — compared with other immigrant-receiving countries has negative implications for political and civic integration.

The report includes several recommendations for data collection, including the addition of a question on the birthplace of parents in the American Community Survey and the addition of a question on legal status at entry or at present to the Current Population Survey. It also recommends that any future legislation to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants include a survey of applicants and follow-up to understand the effects of legalization and 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. Such data should be made available to researchers in secure data enclaves. 

— Rad more in The Integration of Immigrants into American Society (National Academies Press, 2015)