The Integration of Immigrants into American Society

NAS Report Cover

On September 21 the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine published The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, a report that looks at the overall integration of immigrants into the United States.  (This new report is a revision of the original 1997 report produced with Corporation support.)

The Integration of Immigrants into American Society summarizes the findings of new research on how immigrants and their descendants adapt to American society in a range of areas such as education, occupations, health, and language.

The report found that immigrants began to resemble native born Americans over time.  As they and their descendants mix into U.S. society, many aspects of their lives improve, in areas like educational attainment, occupational distribution, income, and language ability. However, there can be declines in wellbeing in the areas of health, crime, and family patterns.  The report found that several factors can impede immigrants’ integration into society, such as legal status, race, socio-economic status and low naturalization rates.

Read the interview with National Academies of Sciences author Marisa Gerstein Pineau and panel member Richard Alba about the findings revealed in the report:

What effect does the current immigration system have on integration?

MR. Richard Alba (RA):  I think what the report documents is really the power of the integration processes in American society.  The really big headline is that despite the difference in the sources—the national sources of immigration today as compared to 100 years ago— immigrants and their descendants on the whole are integrating into American society at a pace that is consistent with our historical experience, and I think that holds for the people who are coming today. 

In fact, the number of Asians coming is now higher than in the past, and we know that the Asian groups are integrating very rapidly into American society.  I don't think that there's any reason to see the present day immigration situation as different from what it's been over the last half-century.

MS. Marisa Gerstein Pineau (MP):  The other potential barrier, and this more nebulous but we talk about it a in the report, is that you face different barriers based on where you live. Integration happens in the specific localities where people settle, and especially with immigrants moving to new destinations, that can potentially create problems, particularly in places without a history of immigration. 

Not always; there are communities that are new destinations that are very welcoming. They're very welcoming to immigrants because they see immigrants as revitalizing their economies, and filling their schools again, et cetera.  But, there have been a lot of places where there's been violence and discrimination, or institutional discrimination like in Arizona. 

There are places where even if people want to be welcoming, their social services are not set up to handle immigration; they don't have ESL programs in their schools for instance. 

What are the most significant ways that immigrant populations today are different from those who have arrived earlier?

RA:  There are two really important differences to keep in mind.  The first is that the issue of legal status was a non-issue in the earlier great wave of immigration.  And, historically, we can see that there were smaller numbers of the undocumented (probably thought of as illegal back then), but they were treated in a very different way; much less harshly than today. 

It's really this very large number of people who are undocumented and also a sizeable number of people who are on temporary statuses.  There was no such thing as a temporary status in the early 20th Century.   That has a real impact on how people integrate, and even on how their U.S.-born children integrate into American society. 

The second really big difference is that the current wave of immigrants includes a very large number of people with high levels of educational and professional qualification.  This is true especially of the groups coming from Asia, such as the Indians or the Koreans.  There's really no analogy to this high status group and the earlier wave of immigration, which was mainly people who were coming to work at the bottom of the labor market. 

MP:  The other obvious difference is that the earlier waves were coming from Europe. They were ethnically different, and in some ways at the time considered racially different, but, they were generally considered white, or became considered white fairly quickly.  Now most of the immigration is from Latin America and Asia. 

Actually, there's more immigration from Asia now than from Latin America.  That's a more recent development in the past few years.  There's been worry about people who are from very different racial groups, about whether they can integrate at the same rate as Europeans. The report finds that it actually is not a barrier. There are racial disparities, but in a lot of ways they're integrating at the same rates.  The place where race does seem to present the biggest problem is for black immigrants, who often come with quite high levels of education and skills, but whose children and grandchildren appear to be integrating into the black native-born population instead of the native-born population.  That's a major finding. 

How do immigrants benefit by integrating into U.S. society?

RA:  There are certainly some scholars who would argue that there can be benefits from remaining embedded within a kind of ethnic immigrant community matrix. 

But, on the whole, I would say immigrants and their children benefit because they gradually attain opportunities for participation in the wider society that are on a par with those of the native group.

What are some of the key barriers to integration? 

RA:  There are several.  One is that lack of permanent legal status impedes the integration process, and the evidence in the report shows that it impedes the integration, for example in educational terms, even of the U.S.-born children of people who lack permanent legal status. 

The second barrier is a very low starting point.  The immigrant groups that come in with very low levels of education, who start at the very bottom of the labor market, there's not clear evidence that even by the third generation their descendants have reached parity with the native population in educational or occupational terms. 

Third, race or ethnic status is to some extent a barrier.  We do see disparities among the descendants according to their racial origin.  The report acknowledges that this could also be true of Latinos, that they are exposed to some degree of discrimination in the later generations that continues to exert a kind of friction in terms of their integration.

In what ways can immigrant well-being decline as they converge with native-born Americans?

MP:  Wellbeing does decline by the second and third generations. This is even the case with immigrants, to some extent, over the course of their lifetime, although they generally live longer and have better health.  In the second and third generations you definitely see a rise in obesity, in chronic health problems, in cancer, in mental disorders, and in alcohol abuse. 

RA:  But, it's important to stress that immigrants look like other Americans. It's not like they are dragging down the health status of American society, it's that because of integration, they're acquiring some of the practices of other Americans.

MP:  The mechanisms are still being investigated. The pressures of integrating— discrimination—might have something to do with it. But, a lot of research has pointed to alcohol use and poor diet.

RA:  Plus limited access to health care in the case of children who are growing up in relatively poor immigrant families. This could also be an issue.  And, insofar as they are growing up in families that are undocumented, and are therefore fearful to make use of the health care system, obviously there are health impacts.

How are immigrant waves affecting the current U.S. native-born population?

RA:  The report emphasizes that integration is, generally speaking, a two-way process.  It's not just that the immigrants and their children are affected by coming to the United States.  It's also that the society is affected.  These effects on the society can sometimes be very hard to see when you're living through them, but they emerge with historical perspective. 

Looking back on the last wave of European immigrants, you are better able to evaluate what their impacts were on American society.  A few things are obvious.  Food, is so obvious it hardly needs to be said.  Also language.  The American language has evolved in part by absorbing words and expressions from immigrant languages. 

We live in New York City, and whether you're Jewish or not, you probably know some Yiddish.  Whether you're Italian or not, you probably know some Italian.  Likewise, Spanish is having a big impact on the native population.  In fact, when you look at the study of foreign languages you can see that, because more and more people, whether they're Latino or not, study Spanish. 

It’s a big change if we compare this with the mid-20th century, when people studied French, German, et cetera.  Those languages are gone.  Spanish is the prime language that we study. Immigrants and their children are having a tremendous impact on the mainstream society because they are integrating socially. 

There are the very high rates of intermarriage that we now see, and of mixed background children.  A survey of the entire population found that today, one in three Americans says that he or she has a close relative of another race.  That's primarily due to immigration. It's through intermarriage with Asians, with Latinos, also with blacks, that white Americans now have people in their close family networks who have a different racial background.  We're becoming mixed in a way that we couldn't have expected. 

MP:  Immigration, especially in smaller places and rural towns where immigrants move, is really changing the face of these communities.  And in some cases, has essentially rescued them from dying. 

Also, more immigrants now move to the suburbs than to central cities.  It used to be that people would move to Chicago, and L.A., and New York, and Miami. But now people are moving to the communities outside of the urban core, so, it's changing school systems, and changing the ethnoburbs. 

It's hard to identify any part of American life that doesn't get touched in some way by immigration. And, with the current political debate, one of the things the report talks about is that most Americans, when you ask what's important political issues they care about, do not place immigration actually very high on their list, although  very well-used as a wedge issue by some people. Americans generally have very positive attitudes towards immigration. 

RA:  Of course — national narrative is that we're a nation of immigrants, so it's part of our identity.