Public concern about the impact of new immigration on America has reached a pitch not seen since the early 20th century. Americans have experienced an immigration surge unprecedented in their lifetimes. This is an unsurprising coincidence in light of the fact that our immigrant population of 37 million is, in absolute numbers, greater than it has been at any time in our history. It’s nearly as large a percentage, 12.5%, of the population as it was at its historic peak at 14.5% in 1890. Today, there are more immigrants from Mexico than there were foreign-born residents from all countries in 1970.
But the most striking finding is much less positive. The current overall assimilation level for all immigrant groups combined, measured on a scale of zero to 100, is, at 28, lower now than it was during the great immigration wave of the early 20th century, when it never went below 32. What’s more, the immigrant group that is by far the largest is also the least assimilated. On the zero-to-100 scale, Mexicans — 11 million emigrated to America between 1980 and 2006 — score only 13.
Although Mexican assimilation does occur, it’s extremely slow. Mexicans who arrived in 1995 started out with Index scores around five – and increased only to around 10 by 2005. In other words, our largest immigrant group arrived with little education and even less knowledge of English, and they have stayed that way for an extended period.
By contrast, Vietnamese started at similar low levels and in 10 years rose to an Index level of more than 40. Notable, too, is that Generation 1.5 – Mexicans who came to this country as children aged five or younger – are also remaining distinct, and in some worrisome ways: they are less likely than other immigrant groups to become citizens, and more likely to be in prison or be a teen mother.
This is sad but not surprising: one can easily expect a large group of young people who are alienated from both their country of origin and from the society in which they now belong to end up in such circumstances:
A hundred years ago, there was a pro-assimilation movement led by the nation’s cultural elite. Across the country, more than 400 settlement houses – from New York’s Henry Street to Chicago’s Hull House – were established. Their mission, taken up by the privileged of that era, included Americanization of newcomers. Indeed, the Pledge of Allegiance, first published in 1892, was written as a primer of America’s values just when immigration was hitting its peak.
Today, the pledge is regarded as chauvinistic, particularly by those who should be leading the assimilation effort. We can’t bemoan low levels of immigrant assimilation if 21st century America’s most fortunate lack the cultural self-confidence to promote it.
Unless those three factors come together, integration won’t take place.
And the immigration problem is an integration problem.