May 14, 2008

Are New Immigrants Assimilating?

I was off to NYC on Monday to meet with our beloved patron and editor, and while I was there attend an interesting-sounding conference on the question ?Are New Immigrants Assimilating?? put on by the Manhattan Institute. Unfortunately, on the train ride over, I caught a wicked 24-hour bug and thus have been out of commission and unable to comment on it yet. (Although I was thankfully roused back to health by reading Bill Kauffman?s review of Ron Paul?s book.)

I was shocked, though not particularly surprised, to observe that while I lay in repose, the study presented at the conference, written by the capable Jacob Vigdor of Duke, was misrepresented in a fashion that can?t be explained by ?liberal bias??I think outright lying would be closer to the mark. 

Take for instance, the opening line of the Washington Post?s report written by N.C. Aizenman: 

Immigrants of the past quarter-century have been assimilating in the United States at a notably faster rate than did previous generations, according to a study released today.

The conference was an invitation-only affair, and when we arrived, we were presented with professor Vigdor?s white paper and a list of all attendees; Aizenman was not among them. The Post hack could have always downloaded a pdf of the study, but then this might have been a bit too demanding. If Aizenman had gotten past the executive summary, he would have come across this paragraph and graph on page 11:

Figure 11 shows that between 1900 and 1920, a period when the immigrant population of the United States grew by roughly 40%, the assimilation index declined substantially, from an initial value of 55 to 42. After 1920, as more severe restrictions were placed on immigration, the index rebounded somewhat, to a level surprisingly similar to that observed in 1980, the beginning of the modern era of immigration. By this index measure, which is based for purposes of comparison on only the information available in early Census enumerations, the drop in the assimilation index between 1980 and 1990 was more precipitous than that depicted in Figure 9. The period between 1990 and 2006 continues to be marked by the lack of a net trend in assimilation.

One could conclude that assimilation is not declining as precipitously as it was between 1980-1990, although the current composite index of 30 out of 100 is not exactly anything to brag about. The only unequivocal ?good news? from the study is that as immigrants spend more time in the country, they become more assimilated (duh). 

David Weigel reproducedAizenman?s reportage on the study?s ?findings? over at Reason and proudly announced, ?Could Tancredo have been ? Wong?? to the glee of his colleagues, no doubt.

Weigel didn?t, however, reproduce what even Aizenman couldn?t keep out of his report, the fact that the largest immigrant group, Mexicans, are by far and away the least assimilated, particularly in comparison with Canadians and East Asians who quickly reach levels of income and civic engagement equal to the natives. 

But the real issue (which almost everyone has ignored) is one of terminology?what exactly is ?assimilation?? Vigdor has a very PC version of the term, assuring us that he?s not talking about adherence to an ideal type?the ?real American?? but instead the degree to which the diversity of new immigrants reflects the diversity of the country as it is. One ?assimilates? not simply by learning English and registering to vote but by committing crime and having out-of-wedlock babies at current levels as well. Lawrence Mead, who offered the strongest criticism of the report at the conference, pointed out that this kind of index basically compares immigrants to immigrants. That is, the study asks whether new, mostly third world immigrants reflect a population that has received a massive influx of third world immigrants over the past 30 thirty years. The more substantive question would be to ask whether new immigrants resemble the American populace of, say, 1960. Such a question would also give us a hint of the degree to which the country has been transformed since the ?65 immigration act. A critical look at Vigdor’s index also basically wipes out the one piece of ?good news? from the study (that assimilation is no longer in decline): obviously, Mexicans are going to more closely resemble American society as American society includes more and more Mexicans. Thus, what?s truly remarkable about Vigdor?s findings is that even with a rather generously conceived index, new immigrants, well, aren?t assimilating.     


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