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The Assimilation of American Immigrants

- May 23, 2008


(Grandpa Sigelman could be in this picture, as it’s the right time and place, but I don’t recognize him.)

The Manhattan Institute recently released a report on the assimilation of immigrants to the U.S. over the course of the last century. The core of the analysis is a composite index of assimilation, which is based on census data and is decomposable by decade, by country of origin, and by dimension of assimilation (economic, cultural, and civic).

The report is jam-packed with findings. Some of these are unsurprising but others seem less consistent with what we thought we knew (or at least what I thought I knew) about these matters.

Some of the report’s main findings are as follows.

bq. 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.

bq. The relative stability of immigrant assimilation since 1990 masks two important and countervailing trends. Newly arrived immigrants of the early 21st century have assimilation index values lower than the newly arrived immigrants of the early 20th century. Growth in the immigrant population usually lowers the assimilation index because newly arrived immigrants drag down the average for the group as a whole. The stability of the assimilation index since 1990 is therefore remarkable in light of the rapid growth of the immigrant population, which doubled between 1990 and 2006. At the same time, the immigrants of the past quarter-century have assimilated more rapidly than their counterparts of a century ago, 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.

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

bq. The three dimensions of assimilation do not increase in lockstep as immigrants spend more time in the United States. Economic and civic assimilation often occurs without significant cultural assimilation. It is common for immigrant cohorts to naturalize and enjoy integration into the economic mainstream without posting many gains along cultural dimensions.

There’s much more in the report itself. To see for yourself, click here