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Immigrants are adapting faster to U.S., but Mexicans lag economically, study says

May 13, 2008 | 12:50 pm

Modern-day immigrants are assimilating faster than past generations, even though they tend to arrive with fewer English skills, says a study issued today by the Manhattan Institute. The study was written by Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

"This is something unprecedented in U.S. history," Vigdor said. "It shows that the nation's capacity to assimilate new immigrants is strong."

A possible explanation, Vigdor said, was that the economic expansion of the 1990s created more job opportunities at all levels, speeding the economic integration of immigrants. It could also be that because today's immigrants begin at such a low starting point, "it's easier to make progress to the next level up" of integration than it would be if the immigrant had to improve on an already high level of integration.  (Washington Post).

According to the study, the gap in economic and civic assimilation rates between native-born and foreign populations in the United States is particularly large for Mexicans, as also reflected by a study of Latina women released last week -- see the La Plaza post here. However, the report notes, Mexican immigrants "have increased their rate of cultural assimilation." (See this La Plaza post on a related topic.) Other immigrant groups assimilate more rapidly economically than they do culturally.

Here's what Vigdor had to say about that in the report's executive summary:

  • Immigrants from Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines enjoy some of the highest rates of assimilation. However, these groups assimilate more rapidly in some respects than others. For example, they are far more assimilated economically than they are culturally. Curiously, all of the countries mentioned have experienced U.S. military occupation.
  • Mexican immigrants experience very low rates of economic and civic assimilation. Immigrants born in Mexico, particularly those living and working in the United States illegally, lie at the heart of many current debates over immigration policy. The assimilation index shows that immigrants from Mexico are very distinct from the native-born upon arrival and assimilate slowly over time. The slow rates of economic and civic assimilation set Mexicans apart from other immigrants, and may reflect the fact that the large numbers of Mexican immigrants residing in the United States illegally have few opportunities to advance themselves along these dimensions.
  • Mexican immigrants experience relatively normal rates of cultural assimilation. Recent cohorts of Mexican immigrants have increased their rate of cultural assimilation just as immigrants born in other nations have done.
  • -- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City