While debates on immigration reform have centered primarily on securing the border and potentially legalizing the undocumented population in the U.S., policymakers have overlooked one key aspect of immigration policy: immigrant integration.
Through integration programs, immigrants can acquire the skills and credentials they need to successfully transition to their new life. This includes, among other things, finding a place to live, entering the job market, and adapting to culture shock. All these steps enable immigrants to thrive economically, which benefits the local communities they inhabit and the country as a whole. These positive effects are further discussed in U.S. Immigrant Integration Pt. 2: Lessons from Abroad and Policy Implications.
But first, what is immigrant integration?
According to Jacob L. Vigdor, Adjunct Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, immigrant integration, or assimilation, can be conceived as the “degree of similarity between the native and foreign-born population.”
The gap between immigrants and native residents tends to diminish with time, as immigrants and their descendants settle into their community, learn the local language, and interact with the native population. As demonstrated by Figure 8 below, this produces a direct relationship between the length of residence in a country and the immigrants’ assimilation level.
As a result, full integration into U.S. society and economy usually takes more than one generation. For example, in the case of language proficiency depicted in Figure 2, nearly all immigrant groups in the U.S. attain fluency by the third generation.
There is no straightforward way to measure assimilation, since it comprises many characteristics. Often researchers rely on socio-economic, civic, and cultural indicators, which provide information on the immigrants’ educational attainment, earnings, citizenship status, residential locale, and language proficiency, among other things.
U.S. Approach to Integration
While several countries have extensive programs dedicated to supporting newly arrived immigrants, the U.S. has opted for a more hands-off, ‘laissez-faire’ approach.
An exception is the Citizenship and Integration Grant Program of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which provides funding for public and non-profit organizations for integration efforts. However, these services are limited to permanent residents who require English and civics training in preparation for their citizenship exam. Though the House of Representatives most recently allocated $10 million for the program, an increase compared to previous years, more steps need to be taken to address immigrant integration in its entirety.
The fact remains that no federal programs currently exist that provide services and information to newly arrived immigrants. Rather, the U.S. has relied to a certain success on a strong labor market, high-quality public education, and voluntary non-profit and religious organizations for providing integration opportunities for immigrants. It is therefore up to states and local governments to determine what resources, if any, to dedicate to immigrant integration.
Challenges with Integration
There are inherently several risks with this approach, especially when labor markets are weak and state budgets for education and immigrant support programs are dwindling. The 2007-09 recession had particularly negative effects on immigrants and their degree of economic integration. As shown by Figure 10, the recession halted the years of steady progress for all immigrant groups living in the U.S., thereby decreasing their rate of economic assimilation.
Recent migration patterns present an additional challenge for immigrant integration. An increasing number of immigrants are choosing to move to “new destination” states like Georgia and South Carolina, rather than states with traditionally high levels of immigrants, like New York, California, and Massachusetts. While the latter have experience providing local training and assistance to newcomers, local residents in these new states have little experience with immigration and may harbor misconceptions about them, which could inhibit the success of integration programs.
Uneven progress among immigrant groups
Overall, the level and pace of successful integration in the U.S. has been highly uneven among immigrant groups, particularly with regards to economic assimilation. As demonstrated by Figure 4, immigrants from Mexico and other Central American countries like Guatemala and El Salvador have assimilated poorly and shown few signs of progress over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, immigrants from Canada and the Philippines have fully integrated into the U.S. economy, with immigrants from Vietnam, India and South Korea also well on their way to full economic integration.
There is however, a limitation to this analysis, since rapidly growing groups will appear to have slower rates of assimilation because their proportion of their total immigrant group increases. As it so happens, Guatemalans, who have the most pronounced economic backsliding among all immigrants, are also one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups of the past decade.
A report by the Migration Policy Institute also finds that Latinos do not integrate as well as Asian, White, and Black immigrant groups. While Latinos do significantly improve in several socio-economic indicators over time, especially for rates of high school degree holders and homeownership, this progress has not been sufficient to allow future generations to catch up to the “societal standard” of native-born Whites.
Finally, the large size of the undocumented population in the U.S. is another formidable barrier to full social, economic, and political integration for immigrants. Most unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. come from Mexico and other Central American countries, which helps explain the relatively slow assimilation rates of that immigrant group. Immigrants’ unauthorized status often limits them to low wage, menial jobs that provide little job security. The impact stretches to future generations, whose opportunities for economic success are limited by their legal status. Thus, until steps are taken to address the legal status of the unauthorized population in the U.S., the integration of Central Americans to society will continue to falter.
Before addressing the policy repercussions of immigrant integration, it is important to examine the issue more broadly and on an international scale to see if there are lessons to be learned.