Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

How Are Those 27 Million Latino Voters Doing?

Immigrants are rapidly closing the gap with longtime Americans.

A record 27 million Latinos are eligible to vote this fall, according to the Pew Research Center, and the latest polls suggest they'll be voting for Hillary Clinton (or against Donald Trump) by a 40-point margin. 

Trump has argued throughout his presidential campaign that recent immigrants aren’t assimilating as waves of immigrants from Europe did 100 years ago. “We have to have assimilation. To have a country, we have to have assimilation,” he has said. “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”

But millions of Hispanics are assimilating at least as well as Europeans did a century ago, research shows. Second-generation immigrants from Cuba and Central and South America already exceed native whites in measures of education and career success. Second-generation Mexican Americans, the largest Hispanic ethnic group in the U.S., still lag behind other groups in educational and occupational achievement but are quickly closing gaps with Americans who have been in the U.S. for generations.

This progress wasn’t inevitable. Sociologists have worried for decades that immigrants who arrived since the 1960s would face a different socioeconomic fate than the waves of European immigrants who arrived early in the 20th century. Are there still enough good-paying working-class jobs in the U.S. to allow new generations of immigrants to climb the ladder? Will nonwhite immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa face racial discrimination that would limit their economic success?

The data tell a more optimistic story. One of the most comprehensive studies in recent years, published by Columbia University last fall in International Migration Review, looked at U.S. Census Bureau surveys of about 60,000 households. It compared how second-generation Hispanics, aged 25 to 40, are faring compared with Americans who have been in the U.S. for three or more generations. It looked at both education and job status, using a 10-point scale that puts managers and professionals at the top.

Van Tran, a sociology professor who co-authored the study, said he isn’t surprised that Mexicans have lower-status jobs and less education than other Latino groups. It's not because they’re not working hard enough, he said, but because many of their parents arrived in the U.S. with much less education than other groups did.

The process of assimilation is rarely a one-generation project. Tran is an immigrant himself. The 37-year-old was born in Vietnam, raised mostly in refugee camps in Thailand, and arrived in New York at 19.

“As an immigrant, I can only try as hard as I can to become American,” Tran said. “But I will still speak English with an accent. I will still be, in some ways, different.”

When the European immigrants arrived, social scientists predicted it could take Italians, Jews, and other groups as many as 12 generations to assimilate. By most measures, it ended up taking them about three generations to catch up with whites long in the U.S.

Just how well are second-generation Hispanic immigrants doing at closing the remaining gap?

To find out, Tran and his colleague Nicol Valdez compared second-generation Hispanics with first-generation Latinos 25 years older. Second-generation Mexicans are making more progress than any other group, the results show, gaining 4.4 years of education over the previous generation. They’re also moving up the career track quickly, second only to immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. 1

Scholars remain worried about the assimilation of undocumented immigrants, whose legal status limits economic advancement of first-generation immigrants and their children as well. Undocumented workers provide U.S. citizens with cheaper services, from food delivery to lawn care, Tran noted, but the result is a population that is “increasingly living in the shadows of our very affluent society.”

Still, he said, “I’m very optimistic about the future of the second generation, the children of immigrants. Despite a lot of the barriers facing them, the data convincingly points to upward social mobility.”

  1. Immigrants from the three countries were all included in the same study category, because of socioeconomic similarities between them and to ensure a large enough sample size. The same was done for immigrants from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

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