The Melting Pot Is Still Melting
The explosion of unrest among the immigrant community in France revealed a long-stewing culture of economic discontent. Should we worry about the same thing happening in the U.S.?
The good news is that the American melting pot still seems to work. The latest data show big gains since the mid-1990s for immigrants on the key measures of economic performance -- education, poverty, homeownership, and unemployment. In some cases, immigrants have shown bigger improvements than native-born Americans. "America has done extremely well in assimilating immigrants," says David Card, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley.
True, questions remain about the assimilation of illegal immigrants, many of whom are unskilled. Creating a class of "temporary workers" who have to go home after a few years -- as President George W. Bush again advocated in a speech on Nov. 28 -- might exacerbate the problem by lessening the incentive for immigrants to learn English and become "more American."
Nevertheless, immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, who make up most of the illegal population, have enjoyed improving fortunes in recent years. Unemployment for Latin-American immigrants fell from 10% in 1996 to 6.8% in 2004, even as unemployment for natives rose from 5.9% to 6.1%.
This experience contrasts favorably with that of Europe, where immigrants have been held back, in part, by a slow rate of job creation. European employers, with few jobs to fill, have favored natives over first- and second-generation immigrants. This starts a vicious cycle, since the lack of work experience makes immigrants even less employable.
CAUSE FOR HOPE
In the U.S. the ease of finding work opens up opportunities, especially when the overall economy is doing well. Since the New Economy boom started in 1996, the poverty rate for immigrants has fallen from 22.2% to 17.2% (that's for 2003, the last figure available). The share of immigrants with a bachelor's degree or better has also climbed from 23.5% to 27.3%, just below the level for native-born Americans. The percentage of immigrants owning their homes -- the ultimate sign of assimilation -- has jumped as well.
These numbers do overstate the positive picture by mixing together Asian newcomers, who typically start off with a good education, with Latin-American immigrants, more than half of whom haven't graduated from high school.
But poverty has plunged even among Latin-American immigrants, while homeownership rates for that group have gone well over 40%. There are even signs of movement on the education front, albeit small. In California the number of Latinos graduating from the state's higher education institutions has been steadily rising. For example, the percentage of associate degrees going to students of Latino background rose from 18.7% in 1996 to 25.4% in 2003. And Latinos got 17.5% of bachelor's degrees awarded in California in 2004, up from 13.5% in 1996.
This isn't enough to close the education gap between natives and Latin-American immigrants. But it's enough to give immigrants and their children a healthy piece of the economic action -- and that's a lot better than what's happening in Europe.
By Michael Mandel