Today’s immigrants are integrating into American society as quickly and as well as past immigrant generations, making measurable progress in English language attainment, educational and career advancement and income growth.
That’s the conclusion of a two-year study released Monday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that examined how the 41 million immigrants in the U.S. today — including the estimated 11 million who are here illegally — and their descendants are assimilating into U.S. culture.
“Overall, immigrants are integrating into American society and becoming part of American families, communities and institutions,’’ said Cecilia Menjivar, a University of Kansas sociologist who helped write the report.
The report runs counter to some of the stereotypes of today’s immigrants, including perceptions by some that immigrants are not quickly learning and adopting English. The report says available evidence suggests that today’s immigrants are learning English as quickly — and maybe even faster — than those in the earlier waves of mainly European immigrants during the 20th century.
The study also found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population of Americans, although their children commit crimes at higher rates than their parents.
Similarly, the study found that immigrants arrive healthier than average Americans but tend to become less healthy as they assimilate, and they also become less likely to have children living with two parents. Ironically, with that decline in their well-being, they are becoming more American.
The report comes as the United States is engaged in a great debate over immigration, particularly over what should be done with the millions of people who are already living and working here illegally. The issue will once again have a high profile in the presidential election.
America is often referred to as a nation of immigrants, and that is no less true today. Immigrants and their children account today for nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population.
With the impending retirement of millions of baby boomers over the next two decades, immigrants and their descendants will be counted on to fill critical jobs in the U.S. economy. And to do that, they will need to climb the ladder of success.
The report found that most immigrants are climbing that ladder.
When it comes to education levels, most second-generation immigrants are meeting or exceeding the education levels of Americans who have been here for at least three generations.
That’s less true for foreign-born Mexicans and Central Americans, who tend to come here with lower levels of education. Their children are progressing further than their parents, but they haven’t been reaching the same education levels as the native born.
When it comes to occupations, there’s similar substantial advancement. While first-generation immigrants tend to be concentrated in low-status occupations, the second generation tends to make large leaps in occupational standing. Some 22 percent of second-generation Mexican men and 31 percent of second-generation Central American men now hold professional or managerial positions.
Immigrants are more likely to live in poverty, though they participate in the labor force at higher rates and work longer hours than native-born Americans. But by the second generation, poverty rates are right at the U.S. average. By the third generation immigrants have below-average poverty rates.
“What all this points to is the continuing assets that immigrants are to our country,’’ said Darcy Tromanhauser, who directs immigration programs for Nebraska Appleseed, a policy and advocacy group in Lincoln. “That’s always been the case, but it becomes even more important as we look to our future and face the demographics of an aging population.’’
About 85 percent of immigrants speak a language other than English at home. But most immigrants today also arrive here already speaking English as at least a second language.
In surveys, half of immigrants said they speak English well or very well, with only 10 percent saying they don’t speak it at all. And subsequent generations are generally acquiring English and losing their ancestors’ native tongues at roughly the same rate as immigrants from previous eras, the study found.
Within three generations, most families are speaking only English, including in communities where there are large concentrations of Mexican-American Spanish speakers. By the third generation, only 4 percent of Mexican-Americans speak Spanish as their primary language, and only 17 percent say they speak Spanish well.
“It happens rather quickly,’’ Menjivar said of language assimilation, “which is of course contrary from perceptions.’’
Perhaps the biggest misconception when it comes to language is that previous generations of European immigrants immediately adopted English as their primary tongue at home. Complete adoption of English has always been a multi-generational process, Menjivar said.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the report is the decline in well-being. Immigrants develop less healthy lifestyles once they integrate into America. They become more likely to smoke, become more sedentary and eat less healthy diets.
“Becoming American has many positive aspects, but it has those other interesting counter-productive components, too,’’ Menjivar said. “Maybe that’s something for people to think about.’’
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