Study: Today's Immigrants Assimilating More Slowly

By Adam Brickley | October 5, 2009 | 8:48 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)

( – Immigrants to the United States are assimilating into American society more slowly than newcomers did last year -- and a century ago. Moreover, Mexican immigrants -- whether in the U.S. legally or illegally -- are blending in the least, according to a study released Monday by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

The report, authored by Duke University economics professor Jacob Vigdor, measured cultural, civic, and economic assimilation. Cultural assimilation was measured using factors including English proficiency, intermarriage, marital status, and number of children, while naturalized citizenship was the primary factor in measuring civic assimilation. The economic assimilation index used a numerous of factors to determine immigrants’ “productive contributions to society.”
Vigdor’s composite assimilation index, which combined the civic, cultural, and economic indexes, showed that modern immigrants are assimilating more slowly than their counterparts in the year 1900.
In a conference call Monday, Vigdor pointed out that today’s immigrants are more likely to know English when they arrive than in the past, but those who lack English skills are not learning it as quickly.
“Today’s immigrants actually have reasonably good English skills on average, but that average is sort of putting together a lot of different groups with very different stories,” Vigdor said.
But Vigdor said those who arrive without knowing English, although a smaller proportion of the immigrant population overall, are taking longer to learn the language than immigrants of a hundred years ago.
Mexican immigrants in particular tend to be less proficient in English. 
“The English skills of newly arrived immigrants from Mexico are relatively poor,” Vigdor said. “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.”
Vigdor added: “There is definitely a contrast between immigrants from Mexico and the rest of the modern immigrant population.”
By a substantial margin, Mexico was the largest source of immigrants to the United States in 2006, the report noted.
Between 1980 and 2006, the number of Mexican-born residents of the United States more than sextupled, to nearly 11 million, representing an annual growth rate of over 6 percent, which was more than five times the growth rate of the U.S. population over the same time period. 

“This growth rate accelerated after 1990,” the report noted. 

One factor that has not declined significantly is the rate of naturalization, Vigdor said.

“Though we’ve had this dramatic change in policy and the path to citizenship has become more difficult, the propensity of immigrants to naturalize appears to be unchanged,” he added. “So, that’s a remarkable finding and it sort of indicates that immigrants place a very high value on citizenship.”

Different immigrant groups showed vastly different naturalization rates, which Vigdor illustrated by comparing Vietnamese immigrants with their Mexican counterparts.

“Amongst (Vietnamese immigrants), who are largely political refugees and from a poor country, the rate of naturalization over time is very high,” said Vigdor. “(If you) look at those Vietnamese immigrants who arrive in the United States in the late 1970s, over 90 percent of them have become naturalized citizens by 2007.” 

However, among Mexican immigrants – many of whom entered the U.S. illegally, the report noted, the 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.”

Vigdor explained this disparity by laying out the factors that contribute to naturalization rates.

“Those immigrant groups that are most likely to naturalize, generally consist of people who are refugees and people who originate in poor countries,” he said. 

“One of the characteristics that predicts a low rate of naturalization would be a high rate of illegal immigrants within the population,” he noted.

One other striking finding about Mexican immigrants -- even many who had the ability to naturalize chose not to, Vigdor said.

“Many of these early Mexican immigrants would have been eligible for amnesty under IRCA (the 1986 immigration reform law),” he said, “but even taking this into consideration, the naturalization rates of Mexican immigrants are low.”
Another factor, he said, was whether large numbers of people were waiting until after age 50 to become citizens, since long-time permanent residents become eligible to take citizenship test in foreign languages after that age. As it turns out, this does not seem to occur often.

“Overall, while there is a tendency for older immigrants to be more likely to be naturalized, there is no spike at age 50,” Vigdor pointed out. 

“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 degree of similarity between the native- and foreign-born, although low by historical standards, has held steady since 1990. Assimilation declined during the 1980s, remained stable through the 1990s, and has actually increased slightly over the past few years.
Immigrants of the past quarter-century have assimilated at a more rapid rate than their counterparts of a century ago, the report found, even though they are more distinct from the native population upon arrival. The increase in the rate of assimilation among recently arrived immigrants explains why the overall index has remained stable, even though the immigrant population has grown rapidly. 

The current level of assimilation remains lower than it was at any point during the early 20th century wave of immigration.

Vigdor said the recession is causing more immigrants to leave the U.S. and return to their their nations of origin. The economic downturn has “had a disproportionate impact on immigrants relative to natives," he said. 

Vigdor, an associate professor of public policy studies and economics at Duke, is a former research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.