"Hispanics, the New Italians," op-ed sparks debate

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"Hispanics, the New Italians," op-ed sparks debate

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Op-ed piece by David Leonhardt

(THE NEW YORK TIMES) - The German immigrants of the 19th century were so devoted to their native language that Americans wondered if the new arrivals would ever assimilate.

The Irish who followed were said to be too devoted to a foreign pope to embrace American democracy.

Many Italians not only were Roman Catholic but also returned home for the winter, when construction work here slowed.

The Chinese and Jews, skeptics argued, were of an entirely different race than many successful immigrants who came before them.

With the arrival of millions of Latinos in recent decades, there have been multiple reasons to wonder if they would assimilate and thrive — including legitimate economic issues that go well beyond ethnic stereotypes.

Unlike previous generations of immigrants, today's can remain in daily telephone and video contact with their homeland.

And unlike those in the past, today's immigrants face legal obstacles, and their pathway to a middle-class life involves college tuition.

A decade ago, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington described the newfound issues with assimilation as simply the "Hispanic challenge."

Yet as the Senate begins to debate a major immigration bill, we already know a great deal about how Latinos are faring with that challenge: they're meeting it, by and large.

Whatever Washington does in coming months, a wealth of data suggests that Latinos, who make up fully half of the immigration wave of the past century, are already following the classic pattern for American immigrants.

They have arrived in this country in great numbers, most of them poor, ill educated and, in important respects, different from native-born Americans.

The children of immigrants, however, become richer and better educated than their parents and overwhelmingly speak English. The grandchildren look ever more American.

"These fears about immigrants have been voiced many times in American history, and they've never proven true," Alan M. Kraut, a history professor at American University, in Washington, told me.

"It doesn't happen immediately, but everything with Latinos points to a very typical pattern of integration in American life in a generation or two."

Immigrant Latino households have a median income that trails the national median by $24,000 (or more than 40 percent).

Among second-generation Latino households, the gap is only $10,000, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

Similarly, only 7 percent of Latino immigrants marry someone of a different ethnicity; a whopping 26 percent of the second generation does.

"It's a very reassuring set of metrics," said Paul Taylor, the Pew center's executive vice president.

Even one alarming trend among the children of Latino immigrants highlights their increased American-ness: younger Latinos are having more children outside marriage than their parents did, just as whites and African-Americans are.

If anything, these snapshots of today's different generations tend to understate immigrants' progress.

Over the last several decades, Mexico and other Latin-American countries sending migrants here, like El Salvador, have also become richer and more educated.

As a result, the immigrants of the past — and, by extension, their children and grandchildren — started out even further behind than today's newcomers.

To gauge the progress of an immigrant group, the ideal comparison is not between the second and third generations in 2013 and the first generation in 2013; it is between the later generations and their actual parents and grandparents. 

James P. Smith, an economist at the RAND Corporation, has done such complex, longitudinal work and finds that the trajectory of Latinos most closely resembles that of Italians, who also arrived with comparatively little education.

For decades, the average Latino immigrant has had slightly more than a junior-high school education.

An average child of a Latino immigrant today completes high school and attends almost one year of college. A typical grandchild attends more college, Mr. Smith found.

In the last decade alone, according to the Pew study, the number of Latinos graduating from college has roughly doubled, to more than 250,000. Latino immigrants, of course, still trail other groups in a number of metrics, including education and income.

And there is no guarantee that they or their descendants will close the gaps completely. They have advantages that previous immigrant waves did not, starting with a national culture less accepting of discrimination than in the past.

But they also face new obstacles. Perhaps most important, earlier groups of immigrants were not breaking the law by living in this country.

For the myriad ways that the country accepts illegal immigrants as part of society, their status still brings enormous disadvantages that inhibit climbing the economic ladder.

Parents without legal status are less willing to become involved in their children's schools. They are less willing than legal workers to ask for a raise or to leave one job for another that brings more opportunity.

They are less easily able to start a business.

Whether you consider those costs too small or too large for people who enter the country without permission, the bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last week would clearly reduce them.

Long before they won citizenship — which would take years — many of today's 11 million illegal immigrants would be able to lawfully register as residents.

"The change would be very significant for them, and it would happen immediately after they register," said Doris M. Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who is now at the Migration Policy Institute.

"They would no longer be clandestine."

The Senate bill is a long way from becoming law. The most probable outcome seems to be a bill that will help many recent immigrants, either substantially or modestly.

No matter what, the overall direction for the modern wave of American immigrants is unlikely to change.

The notion of a unique "Hispanic challenge" is not wrong. But neither was the notion of a unique Italian challenge, Chinese challenge or Jewish challenge.

To be an impoverished immigrant who does not speak English and has few labor-market skills is not easy. Over time, the specific challenges — legal, cultural and educational — have changed.

Yet the core parts of the story have not, including its trajectory.

David Leonhardt is the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times.

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