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Three Reasons Immigrants in America Bond Better

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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The heated debate over immigration in Europe would benefit from a basic chemistry lesson: You can pour salt into water and produce the semblance of unity. But as chemists know, you have created nothing new that can't separate again. All you did was stir.

Successful integration of immigrants (whether refugees or economic migrants) also requires more than stirring. The two ingredients must form a new chemical compound. Ideally within a single generation, it should be difficult to differentiate between the experiences newcomers and natives have in terms of their employment rates, education and other measures.

Three simple gauges of integration suggest that while Europe keeps pouring in migrants, America -- which once defined itself by its ability to absorb the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore" -- still seems to be better at the real chemistry, allowing itself to be changed by immigration. Even a nation that succeeds at integration does so imperfectly, of course. Some populations take longer to settle. Refugees from Burma and Iraq, for example, do much worse than those from Russia or Iran. But policy makers and sociologists should be watching closely to understand what has made the U.S. so successful on a number of fronts.

Integration and Academic Scores. In July, the OECD published the first broad international comparison of how immigrants are faring across the OECD and the EU in five areas: employment, education and skills, social inclusion, civic engagement, and social cohesion. In the U.S., adjusting for socio-economic background, offspring of foreign-born parents do 26 percent better at 15 than those of second-generation (or longer) Americans.

In the EU as a whole, also adjusting for socio-economic background, children of foreign-born parents do 17 percent worse than their counterparts without a migration background -- and 32 percent worse if they themselves are foreign born.

Clearly time is a factor. School performance tends to improve the longer students reside in the host country, and many of Europe's new immigrants have simply not had the time to benefit.

Levels of Idleness: In the average EU country, one-third of working-age citizens who came from outside the EU are not in employment, education or training (so-called NEETs). The highest proportion of NEETs is largely in countries with the most rigid labor markets -- Belgium, France, Germany and Spain -- with the Nordics doing much better. Women are more marginalized than men among the foreign-born.

NEETs represent a problem for host countries as they are a burden on social services, a wasted resource, and a potential source of long-term unemployment and other ills. Among EU countries surveyed by the OECD, 19.1 percent of native-born offspring of foreign parents are NEETs, 4.2 percentage points higher than among native offspring of native parents.

In the U.S., there is only a 0.3 percentage point difference between NEETs with foreign-born parents and NEETs with native parents. In France, it is 9.1 percentage points and in Belgium 18.2 percentage points. The rates in Germany and Sweden are better -- 3.3 and 3.5 percentage points.

The difference in engagement with employment, education or training is really striking when you look at foreign-born migrants who arrived as adults. In the U.S., the difference with native-born Americans whose parents were also born in the U.S. is 6.5 percentage points. In Sweden the difference is 17.1 percentage points, in the Netherlands 22.9, in France 24.5 and in Germany 19.3.

In the EU, young people with migrant parents have a 50 percent greater youth unemployment rate than those with native-born parents. That is not true in the U.S., where the employment outcomes are similar between the two groups.

Perceptions of Acceptance by Immigrants. Here, data shows that in the U.S. and Canada, native-born residents with two foreign-born parents are much less likely to report being discriminated against than their counterparts in the EU are. This suggests that in the EU, those with immigrant backgrounds, even if they were born in the country, do not feel integrated.

Following mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne and other Germany cities on New Year's Eve, German attitudes toward immigration have hardened: Now 62 percent of Germans say the number of asylum-seekers is too high, up from just over half in November. Support for refugees had been dropping in Sweden well before claims this week that police covered up reports of sexual assaults on dozens of concert-goers in Stockholm last summer, an echo of similar attacks in 2014. If the declining support for immigrants in European countries translated into more discrimination that could slow integration, with damaging effects not just for immigrants but also the host society.

Even a nation that succeeds at integration does so imperfectly, of course. Some populations take longer to settle. In the U.S., more than half of refugees from Burma, Iraq, Liberia and Somalia had income levels below twice the poverty level in 2009 to 2011, while the attainment (educational and income) of Russians, Iranians and Vietnamese was on a par with or higher than those who were U.S.-born. But policy makers and sociologists should be watching closely to understand what has made the U.S. so successful on a number of fronts.

It's tempting to conclude that the problem in Europe is simply one of numbers -- too many, too fast. But studies have found no causal link between the proportion of immigrants in the population and how well they integrate.

If greater control over the number of immigrants has now become a political necessity even in Germany and Sweden, understanding the route to more effective integration is all the more imperative.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net