Coming to America

Stephen DeAngelis

May 22, 2008

The recent raid of a kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, that netted more than 300 illegal immigrants working there reminds us that the debate about immigration is likely to remain a hot topic as America moves into the next phase of the presidential election [“Hundreds Are Arrested in U.S. Sweep of Meat Plant,” by Susan Saulny, New York Times, 13 May 2008]. The raid also highlights the significant effects that such enforcement can have on local, national, and international economies.

“The plant has 800 to 900 people and is the country’s largest producer of meat that is glatt kosher, widely regarded as the highest standard of cleanliness. The plant shut temporarily. … Among people …in Postville, ‘there is a lot of fear,’ said Prof. Mark A. Grey, who focuses on immigration at the University of Northern Iowa. ‘It’s absolutely devastating to the local economy,’ Professor Grey said. … According to Menachem Lubinsky, the editor of Kosher Today and a marketing consultant, AgriProcessors provides 60 percent of the kosher retail meat and 40 percent of the kosher poultry nationally, and most retail chains depend on it for supply. Mr. Lubinsky said the company was also the sole American packing plant whose products are accepted in Israel.”

Undoubtedly, most of the illegal workers caught in the raid were from Mexico or countries south. According to an article in the Washington Post, immigrants from Mexico have less earning power and are the least educated immigrant group in America [“Study Says Foreigners In U.S. Adapt Quickly,” by N.C. Aizenman, 13 May 2008]. As a result they end up in manpower intensive industries such as meat packing, agriculture, and construction — backbreaking work where openings often go unfilled because enough willing employees cannot be found.

“Modern-day immigrants arrive with substantially lower levels of English ability and earning power than those who entered during the last great immigration wave at the turn of the 20th century. The gap between today’s foreign-born and native populations remains far wider than it was in the early 1900s and is particularly large in the case of Mexican immigrants, the report said.”

The news is not all bad, however. Aizenman reports that immigrants are actually assimilating faster than they did in the past.

“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 study, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, used census and other data to devise an assimilation index to measure the degree of similarity between the United States’ foreign-born and native-born populations. These included civic factors, such as rates of U.S. citizenship and service in the military; economic factors, such as earnings and rates of homeownership; and cultural factors, such as English ability and degree of intermarriage with U.S. citizens. The higher the number on a 100-point index, the more an immigrant resembled a U.S. citizen.”

Of the top ten immigrant groups, Canadian immigrants assimilate the best (no surprise there) and Mexican immigrants assimilate the least. Undoubtedly, the fact that there are large Latino populations in many areas of the U.S. means that Spanish speakers don’t have to assimilate quickly to get along. Judging by the data, however, just “getting along” means having many fewer opportunities to improve one’s quality of life than those who assimilate.

“In general, the longer an immigrant lives in the United States, the more characteristics of native citizens he or she tends to take on, said Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor at Duke University and author of the study. During periods of intense immigration, such as from 1870 to 1920, or during the immigration wave that began in the 1970s, new arrivals tend to drag down the average assimilation index of the foreign-born population as a whole. The report found, however, that the speed with which new arrivals take on native-born traits has increased since the 1990s. As a result, even though the foreign population doubled during that period, the newcomers did not drive down the overall assimilation index of the foreign-born population. Instead, it held relatively steady from 1990 to 2006. ‘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.”

Frankly, that the U.S. has a strong capacity to assimilate new immigrants is a bit surprising based on the increasingly shrill attention given to the 12 million illegal immigrants living in America. It is difficult for many people to disassociate their negative feelings for illegal immigrants from their feelings about immigrants in general. The fact that presidential candidate John McCain had to abandon his relatively compassionate immigration bill in order to secure his party’s nomination is a sign of the xenophobic tension tugging at America’s heartland.

“Vigdor also said his findings included cause for concern: most notably, the fact that the 2006 assimilation index of 28 is less than the previous low point of 42 in 1920. The difference indicates the substantial change in the composition of today’s immigrants compared with earlier immigration waves. Although new arrivals at the turn of the 20th century were most likely to be eastern and southern Europeans, he said, ‘one of the top five origin countries was England, and close to 100 percent of them spoke English.’ By contrast, the majority of immigrants today are Mexicans and other Latin Americans, with the next largest share coming from a range of developing nations with languages other than English. The overall assimilation index also masks big differences between immigrants from certain countries. Mexicans, for example have an index of 13, while Vietnamese were at 41. And although immigrants who arrived as children tend to be nearly identical to their U.S.-born counterparts, apart from their lower rates of citizenship, those who come from Mexico are less assimilated and have higher incidences of teenage pregnancy and incarceration.”

Vigdor attributes much the lack of Latino assimilation to the fact that those in the U.S. illegally have many paths to assimilation cut off to them. Culturally, he points out, they actually assimilate better than immigrants from India or China (although they rank beneath those groups in economic assimilation — with a score of 66 out of a 100 compared to 96 and 90 respectively). Assimilation is a critical factor in advancing globalization and assuring a healthy economic climate. Emotions are likely to color the immigration debates in the U.S. and elsewhere (such as recent attacks on immigrants in South Africa), which will make passing sensible immigration legislation more difficult. No country can long tolerate a flood of illegal immigration — the security risks are too high and enforcement costs pose an unmeasured, but negative, tax on the economy. A satisfactory U.S. plan for dealing with this challenge has yet to emerge. When it does, it will undoubtedly be a compromise proposal that makes no one
entirely happy.