Snapshot of the Future Snapshot of the Future

December 1, 1998

If children are harbingers of the future, five-year-old Shaner Guerra is a portent of a future that is both very different and fundamentally American.

As the son of recent immigrants, Shaner — and thousands like him — represent the most lasting legacy of the new immigration to the United States. The country is in the midst of receiving the largest wave of immigrants in its history; an estimated ten million arrived during the 1980s. And, unlike the previous great migration at the turn of the century, which was mostly European, today's immigrants come increasingly from Latin America and Asia.

Among them are Shaner's parents. Guiomar and Frank left Minas Gerais, Brazil, hoping to find ways to support their family back home. Today, Frank still sends away some of what he makes at Wain Manufacturing, an eyeglasses case factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. Guiomar cleans houses to contribute to the family's income. "This country has been good to us and to our people," she says.

Nonetheless, their sacrifices have been significant and painful. Guiomar left her mother, eight brothers, and four sisters behind. The thought of Shaner is what keeps them from going back. "The situation is better for him here," she explains.

Immigration Tides

The Guerras' efforts will be rewarded if Shaner can move into the American mainstream. But some of the hurdles he will face may be larger than those faced by the children of earlier immigrants. Some economists and sociologists are concerned that immigrants today face declining prospects of assimilation, and that this will affect the next generations as well. The experts worry that some immigrant groups will take a long time to catch up with natives in education and income, potentially remaining trapped in an underclass.

For immigrants like the Guerras, the United States will always be a second home, but their children are another story. They link this country to its immigrant past and help determine its future. The extent to which they can ascend rungs on the economic ladder — and integrate into American culture — will have a lot to do with what this country will be like in the next century.


In absolute numbers, the United States now hosts the highest number of immigrants in its history. And, almost 60 percent of the 26 million foreign-born residents arrived after 1980. Moreover, as birth rates have been declining, the contribution of immigration to population growth has been increasing, accounting for a third of the total in the 1980s.

The current immigrant wave seems unprecedented in the light of the recent past. Between the 1930s and the late 1960s, only about 250,000 immigrants entered the country annually. This was largely a result of the National Origins Act of 1924 in which Congress closed the floodgates and set numerical restrictions on immigration. But, the new wave has historical parallels in the last great migration, which took place at the turn of the century. In relative terms, today's immigrant wave is actually below the levels of that previous great wave when 15 percent of the U.S. population was born abroad and immigration accounted for half of all population growth.

The current immigrant inflow began after 1965 when Congress increased the number of visas. By the 1990s, immigration had quadrupled. Now, close to one million immigrants enter each year -about 800,000 of them legally.

The 1965 law also repealed national origin restrictions (which had favored people from northern and western Europe), and made having family ties in the United States the key factor for obtaining residency. As a result, the share of immigrants coming from Asia and Latin America now accounts for about 83 percent of the total; Mexico alone accounts for almost a quarter; and only about 15 percent come from Europe or Canada. The number of countries with at least 100,000 foreign-born residents in the United States rose from 21 in 1970 to 41 in 1990, according to Jeff Passel of the Urban Institute.

The impact of the new wave has also been highly concentrated, with six states — California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois — receiving three-quarters of all immigrants. Although its importance as a destination has decreased relative to the previous wave, New England has not been exempt. Massachusetts ranks seventh in the yearly flow of immigrants and in the total number of foreign-born residents (over 500,000 making up about 9.5 percent of its population.) Connecticut and Rhode Island also have substantial numbers of foreign-born residents: 279, 000 and 95,000 respectively.

Like the rest of the nation, New England has seen a large change in the sending countries. In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, the top three countries of origin for immigrants in the 1950s were Canada, Ireland, and Greece. Today, they are Cambodia, Portugal, and Laos.

Shifts in American policy are only partially responsible for the increase in the size and diversity of immigration. Much of the industrialized world is receiving a racially diverse influx of immigrants. In the Netherlands, for instance, a tenth of the population now comes from places such as Surinam, Turkey, and Morocco. Sheer world population growth, increasing ease in transportation, the free-flowing cultural exchange across most borders, and the growing gulf between industrialized and developing nations have all contributed to making richer nations magnets for people in less developed countries.


The very size and diversity of the current flow have aroused fears in the U.S. about immigrants' capacity to assimilate. These fears have been aired over the issue of bilingual education in public schools, for example. In June, when California passed a law curtailing programs that teach children in their native tongue, they were partly responding to the feeling that immigrant absorption was failing.

To a certain extent, the alarm about the declining prospects of immigrants is an issue of perception. Being mostly non-white or Hispanic, and concentrated — being clustered in the inner cities of a handful of states — the new immigrants are very visible. Since income and language ability improve with time in the United States, the impression that immigrants' capacity to integrate has declined may be due to the recency of their arrival.

But there may be legitimate reasons to worry that the new immigrants will face some greater difficulties than previous waves, and that the assimilation of some groups may be stalled. Conditions today are different from a century ago. For one, the structure of economic opportunities has shifted against uneducated, less-skilled workers; knowledge-based services — where education and language skills are crucial — have eclipsed manufacturing in economic importance. This transformation may have narrowed the range of mid-level occupations that allow the children of immigrants to move up gradually into better-paying jobs.

Race is another factor: since most of the recent immigrants and their offspring are non-white or Hispanic, they are vulnerable to discrimination, which may persist across generations.

These new circumstances have led Princeton University sociologist Alejandro Portes and others to worry that the immigrant groups which belong to racial minorities might assimilate into the poverty and hopelessness of the inner city. Eventually, this could lead to the creation of an expanded multiethnic underclass in American society.

In Miami, for example, where Little Haiti is adjacent to Liberty City, the main black inner-city area, Portes finds that Haitian children are torn between being made fun of for retaining their parents' cultural differences and assuming the identities of underprivileged Black-Americans. Their options, according to Portes, are either to remain culturally distinct or to adopt a culture in which education is devalued and hope of economic improvement is scarce.

Whether or not Portes' fears come to pass depends on a range of factors. The ability to assimilate varies significantly among ethnic communities and depends partly on government policies, societal reception, and the existence of a well-established coethnic community. Some foreign groups, such as Soviet Jews escaping religious persecution and the Cubans escaping Castro, have been less affected by prejudice than other groups, and have found a more generous welcome. Their assimilation, or at least their economic integration, has been easier than it has been for others. Not having a well-established network of fellow nationals makes some other groups especially vulnerable.

Diverse Roots


Remembering the hardships faced by previous immigrants can help to place today's immigration in perspective. If history can serve as a guide, it tells us that although immigrants faced formidable obstacles in the past and assimilation was slow, persistent disadvantage did not imply permanent stagnation. A century and a half ago, the Irish were in a position at least comparable to that of today's poorest immigrants. They lived in slums such as Fort Hill and the North End in Boston, where conditions were terrible. Overcrowding and improper drainage helped spread cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis.

Many doors were closed by prejudice. The warning: "None need apply but Americans," was common in employment postings. This, together with their lack of specialized skills, eliminated the Irish from consideration in most jobs except for the least desirable occupations or those which required physical labor. By 1850, more than 2,200 Irish girls worked as domestic servants in Boston. As Oscar Handlin chronicled in his classic Boston's Immigrants, they "could not readily become merchants or clerks; they had neither the training nor the capital to set up as shopkeepers or artisans. The absence of other opportunities forced the vast majority into the ranks of an unemployed resourceless proletariat."

In the second generation, their children slowly moved up into occupations such as longshoremen and teamsters. A few advanced to the skilled crafts in the building and furniture trades. Still, lack of access to education made it difficult to ascend to better-paid clerical and professional occupations. "For a long time," wrote Handlin, "they were fated to remain a massive lump in the community, undigested, undigestible."

Today, 150 years later, one of the country's best-loved presidents has been of Irish descent. And, the Irish are just one example. The turn-of-the-century Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants were also perceived inferior to northern- and western- European immigrants. French-Canadians faced language issues. Yet slowly, each group in its way, became part of New England's fabric.

But their social and economic ascent, which we now take as given, were certainly not something the immigrants themselves could foresee at the time. For the Irish, the most pressing concern was to obtain a job, and there was no profusion of jobs ready-and-waiting. Yet, ultimately, the cheap labor and abundant numbers helped to create a new industrialism in Boston.

Similarly, the prejudice against the Irish, which even erupted in mob violence and the burning down of a Charlestown convent, has mostly disappeared. Difference is, in part, a matter of perception and perceptions can change.


Looking at history reminds us that fears over the assimilation of immigrants have been aroused in the past, yet have subsided with time. But the extent to which we can infer from the past is limited because there are some factors that have changed. Given the shift in economic structure, education is perhaps the most important factor today contributing to a successful assimilation. The most educated half of the immigrant population has been, and continues to be, at least as highly educated as the upper half of Americans, and the evidence is that their absorption will be relatively trouble-free.

But the disparity in years of schooling between the lower quarter of immigrants and the lower quarter of Americans is troubling, having gone from one to three years between 1970 and 1990. This decline in schooling, combined with the premium to education in today's economy, are largely responsible for a drop in the earnings of immigrants relative to that of natives. According to Harvard economist and immigration specialist George Borjas, immigrants who arrived between 1965 and 1969 earned 17 percent less on average than natives. In contrast, those who arrived between 1985 and 1989 earned 32 percent less than natives.

The educational disparities among immigrants are closely linked to their country of origin. This reinforces the notion that certain national groups may have more difficulty moving into the mainstream. Economist David Card, at U.C. Berkeley, found for instance that from 1994 to 1996, immigrants from Latin America had 9.4 years of schooling on average, while Americans had an average of 13 years, and both European and Asian immigrants averaged more than 13 years of education.

Country-of-origin differences were reflected in wages as well; Europeans had the highest weekly wage at $759 compared to $646 for Asians, and $621 for natives. The lowest wages, by far, were earned by Latin Americans at only $366 per week.

The long-term outlook may be more optimistic, however, than Card's figures suggest. The wages of immigrants will likely improve with time as they learn the language and figure out how to navigate within American society. Some will pursue further education after they arrive. And, many will make up for their disadvantages with the drive, resilience, and ambition that brought them here in the first place. "The mere fact that people come here with a fifth- or sixth-grade education doesn't limit them," observes Ed MacNeil, State Refugee Coordinator in New Hampshire.

Nonetheless, Borjas found evidence that, in the past, significant differences in income carried over to the next generation. "Roughly half of the wage differential between any two groups persisted into the second generation, and half of the gap between two groups in the second generation persisted into the third," says Borjas. What this means is that — if we can extrapolate from the historical experience — it could take more than three generations for the differences between groups to fade.

Thus, the new immigrants who start at much lower levels in education and income are unlikely to close the wage gap in their lifetime. Moreover, since education and earnings of parents have an impact on their children, the children of less-educated immigrants are likely to achieve a lower educational status and earn lower wages than their peers. It could take the descendants of today's least-educated immigrants longer to achieve economic parity with the children of natives than it did the descendants of previous waves of immigrants.


Thus, the question today is how much impact will the growing economic importance of education have on immigrant assimilation, particularly on the groups that arrive with the lowest levels of educational attainment.

It is too early to tell, since most of the children of these "new" immigrants are just starting to come of age. However, not all roads are closed. By their very presence, immigrants generate economic opportunities for other immigrants as customers for ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, specialty shops, travel, and financial services. Entrepreneurship is high; immigrants own 1.5 million U.S. businesses, or one of every 12 companies, according to the Census Bureau's most recent estimates in 1992. Furthermore, the knowledge of a second language may give the children of immigrants an edge in the increasingly global economy. As with the Irish, whose presence facilitated the industrialization of Boston, the presence of today's immigrants may lead to unexpected outcomes. And, economist David Card and others have found that despite the difficulties they face, children of immigrants tend to surpass children of natives whose parents have similar education and income.

Changing Composition

But the obstacles can be large and success should not be taken for granted. Policy and community measures can be used to bridge the educational gap. Thus, the future is shaped daily in places like the Collins Middle School in Salem, Massachusetts.

Over the last couple of decades, the public schools in Salem have absorbed a large group of children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The schools focus on retaining the children's knowledge of their parents' language. "How well you speak your first language has a big impact on how well you learn the second language, and language is the primary tool we use for learning," says Dr. Arlene Dannenberg who deals with both school desegregation and English education. Outcomes vary from student to student but, according to Dannenberg, each year the number of Hispanic students going to college has increased.

Learning and becoming more integrated often comes at the cost of distancing themselves from their parents' culture. "The children catch up very fast, but the gap between them and their parents grows bigger and bigger," says Duy Pham, of the Vietnamese American Civic Action Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Nonetheless, it is a timeless American process. At the International Institute of Boston, Quang Nguyen, who has worked with immigrants for over two decades, tells the story of the son of a Vietnamese-Cambodian couple. The child once asked: "Am I Vietnamese, Cambodian, or American?" His father, a social worker, explained: "You are all of those because America was formed by refugees and immigrants. You are the new American people."

There and Back Again
Immigrant flows may swell and ebb and, in some cases, even reverse themselves. But the cultural bridge that immigrants establish between their origin and host countries persists. These ties can lead to unanticipated opportunities.

The Irish in Boston are a good example. In the late 1980s, Ireland was suffering from a deep recession and many educated young people who couldn't find work at home came to what they perceived — by virtue of historical precedent — to be a friendly place. The Irish Immigration Center was founded then as a self-help organization to deal with the difficulties immigrants encountered, particularly those who were undocumented.
Today, the Center still holds a free legal clinic the first Monday of the month at an Irish restaurant in Allston, where lawyer Eoin Reilly answers immigration questions. But, with the economic recovery in Ireland, the situation is very different. In 1997, more people returned to Ireland than left, reversing a long-held historical pattern. The Center's immigration paralegal, Kieran O'Sullivan, increasingly finds himself answering concerns of people going back to Ireland. "What if it doesn't work? Can we come back in to the U.S.?"
Ireland's economic recovery has also brought a new type of flow. Irish companies seeking to expand have come recruiting to the United States and some of them have been setting up shop here. Software company IONA Technologies, for instance, employs 150 people in their Cambridge base. They chose to set up their U.S. headquarters in Boston because the city has an "Irish flavor" and the time difference with Dublin is less harsh than it would be in the West Coast.

The Marriage Factor
There is more to assimilation than integration into the economic mainstream. Marriage patterns, for instance, provide a broader perspective on immigrants' integration to American culture and society.

As it turns out, however, cultural and economic integration are closely related. The children of better-educated immigrant fathers are more likely to marry Americans than are the offspring of less-educated immigrants, according to a study by economists David Card, John Dinardo, and Eugena Estes. While this finding supports the notion that there is a strong link between the economic well-being of immigrant fathers and the degree of assimilation achieved by their children, it does not eliminate the influence of individual cultures. In the study, the children of Asian immigrants were an exception to the general pattern. In spite of the relatively high level of their fathers' education, Card and colleagues found that second-generation Japanese children had very low intermarriage rates in 1970.


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