Immigrants Assimilating More Slowly Than in Past, Due to Recession, Study Says

By Adam Brickley | October 6, 2009 | 1:55 PM EDT

Demonstrators unveil a 'human billboard' at La Placita Olvera area in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, May 1, 2009 during a march and rally for immigration law reform. Organizers are urging passage of an immigration law that provides a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Sign reads 'Workers First.' (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

( – The economic downturn has contributed to the slowdown of the rate of immigration and – and has impacted how well immigrants are assimilating into American society, according to a study released Monday by the Manhattan Institute.
“What this recession is doing, is . . . increasing the likelihood that immigrants now in the United States will return home,” Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor said at a news conference Monday. “With the increased prospects of returning home, the incentive for immigrants to learn English has declined.” 

Vigdor, the author of the report, said that average immigrant growth since 1970 had been in the range of 3 percent to 4 percent, but between 2006 and 2007 it declined to only 1.4 percent. In 2007, the foreign-born population increased by only 500,000, as compared to 2.1 million in 2006. The economy slowed immigration rates, and caused a decline in cultural and civic assimilation.
Cultural assimilation is defined as proficiency in using English, intermarriage with native-born Americans, marital status, and number of children. The primary factor in determining civic assimilation is naturalized citizenship. Economic assimilation is defined by several factors that determine immigrants’ “productive contributions to society,” Vigdor said.
A composite assimilation index, which combines the civic, cultural, and economic indexes, showed that, overall,  today’s immigrants are assimilating slower than their counterparts in the year 1900.
The study also found that today’s immigrants have reasonably good English skills on average – but there are some wide variations within immigrant groups.
“Those who arrive without knowing English, although they’re a smaller proportion of the immigrant population overall, are taking a longer time to learn than immigrants of a hundred years ago,” Vigdor said.
English skills for Mexicans immigrants, the least assimilated ethnic group, are worse than the for the immigrant population as a whole, though there is some evidence that their rate of English acquisition may be higher.
“The English skills of newly arrived immigrants from Mexico are relatively poor,” he said. However, he also noted that, “if you compare them to historical counterparts, though, they’re not completely unprecedented. The English skills of immigrants who arrived between 1896 and 1900 were also relatively poor.”
Still, Vigdor said, “there is definitely a contrast between immigrants from Mexico and the rest of the modern immigrant population.”
Relative to Mexican immigrants, for instance, Vietnamese immigrants arrived with the linguistic advantage of knowing more English than most Mexican immigrants and have maintained that advantage over time.
Changes in policy have placed new hurdles on path to citizenship but immigrants remain just as likely to pursue naturalization are ever. However, illegal immigrants are a clear exception to the pattern.
Again, comparing different immigrant groups showed vastly different naturalization rates, Vigdor said.
“Amongst (Vietnamese immigrants), who are largely political refugees and from a poor country, the rate of naturalization over time is very high,” he said. “If you look at those Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late 1970s, over 90 percent of them have become naturalized citizens by 2007.”
However, among Mexicans, the citizenship picture is quite different.
“Among Mexican immigrants who arrived in the late 1970s, even by 2007, less than half of them have become naturalized citizens,” Vigdor said. “That reflects, in part, the fact that many of these Mexican immigrants are in the country illegally.”
One other striking finding, he added, is that the study found that many of those Mexican immigrants who had the ability to become naturalized Americans, chose not to.
“Many of these early Mexican immigrants would have been eligible for amnesty under IRCA (the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), but even taking this into consideration, the naturalization rates of Mexican immigrants are low,” Vigdor added.
The study also found that there aren’t a lot of immigrants waiting to age 50 become citizens, even though long-time permanent residents become eligible to take a citizenship test in their native language after that age. .
“Overall, while there is a tendency for older immigrants to be more likely to be naturalized, there is no spike at age 50,” Vigdor said. “There’s more of a smoother relationship between age and naturalization. So, the conclusion that I take away from this is that there is not a large group of immigrants who would really love to become citizens but don’t want to learn English. Those immigrants who are interested in citizenship, by and large, will be interested in learning English.”
The assimilation study is based on a combination of Census Bureau data and the annual American Community Survey. It measures the degree of similarity or distinction between the native-born and foreign-born populations of the United States on a  zero to 100 scale. The index is recalculated annually with up-to-date data.