Hispanics are America’s largest immigrant group by far. Some say they’re not assimilating, others say that’s a smear we’ve heard against immigrant groups many times before

June 3, 2009

Living in the U.S., in their own way
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, October 12, 2008

As their ranks swell, Hispanic immigrants are seen as slow to assimilate into American society.

Abraham Gonzalez came from Mexico at age 17 to pick crops in Idaho. He became a U.S. citizen 12 years ago — but only to avoid paying renewal fees on his green card.

He has never registered to vote. Members of his family who are eligible to become citizens or to vote have not done so.

The Fort Worth family illustrates many Hispanic immigrants’ experience in the U.S.: intensely focused on work but not as involved in other aspects of American life.

While some who study immigration say that Hispanics are integrating into U.S. society, a number of others agree that today’s Hispanic immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as previous immigrants.

But they disagree about whether the trend is harmful.

By 2050, the number of Hispanics in America will be triple what it was in 2005, jumping from 14 percent to 29 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center of Washington, D.C., which studies the growth of America’s Latino population.

The numbers are even higher in Texas, where Hispanics already make up more than a third of the population.

The large influx allows Hispanics to hold onto their culture and language longer than the last great wave of immigrants did a century ago, experts say.

Current immigrants confront challenges different from those of the early 20th century, when immigrants assimilated into a largely low-skilled society. They compete in a more educated work force and in a climate of low wage growth for workers on the bottom rungs.

Further hindering assimilation, many Latin Americans are from cultures where the lack of trust in people outside the family keeps them from full participation in society.

The result is a bitter debate at every level of American society — from cities like Farmers Branch, which is trying to ban illegal immigrants from renting apartments in the city, to state and U.S. capitals, where lawmakers fight over whether to help illegal immigrants fit in or to force them out.

The debate

American history is full of immigrant groups taking a turn as persona non grata. Benjamin Franklin hated German immigrants. America’s first significant restrictions on immigration targeted once-detested Asians with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Irish immigrants seeking work were met with signs telling them they need not apply.

Today, German immigrants’ descendants are indistinguishable from other white Americans. Asians are celebrated as a “model minority” for their academic achievements and now make up the largest share of immigrants coming to the U.S. on student visas. Irish-Americans fly Irish flags at St. Patrick’s Day parades without any of the invective that’s heaped on Latinos for waving Mexican flags at immigration rallies.

But Hispanics have been slower to assimilate than these past immigrant groups, says Jake Vigdor, and the numbers show it. The associate professor of public policy and economics at Duke University in North Carolina measured indicators such as the ability to speak English, educational attainment, military enlistment and rates of becoming citizens.

An assimilation index he put together found Mexico far behind other countries that also send lots of immigrants to the U.S. Mexico scored 13 on the index. Canada had the highest score, 53. Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines scored more than 40.

“That is troubling,” Vigdor said. “What really distinguishes Mexican immigrants from other immigrants both past and present is that they don’t make a lot of progress over time.”

Lawrence Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said Hispanics are too resistant to assimilation to make it in America.

“Latin American culture has a number of attitudes that help explain why it has been so slow to develop democracy, social justice and prosperity,” Harrison said.

Harrison, who is fluent in Spanish from decades of work as a U.S. government aid worker in five Latin American countries, said that Hispanic immigrants are hardworking but that they lack the entrepreneurial, small-business-founding tendencies that turn other immigrant groups into success stories.

Stanford University historian David Kennedy said the idea that the newest immigrant group doesn’t have the right background to fit in has been heard many times before.

“Many other groups have been perceived in their historical moment as so culturally distant from the norm that they were not thought to be assimilating. In fact, all of them assimilated,” Kennedy said.

The Gonzalez example

The Gonzalez family is an example of both immigrant progress and slowness to participate in American life. Abraham and his wife, Isabel, have seven children, some legal permanent residents, some U.S. citizens by birth.

Friendly, hardworking, honest, religious and family-oriented, they are the type of people most organizations or societies would want.

But other than an unshakable commitment to the Catholic Church and an intense participation in the job market, the Gonzalezes are involved in few other aspects of American life.

Abraham, an electrician and head of the household, became a citizen in 1996.

Life with the proper paperwork became easier, but his lifestyle changed little. He continued going to work early every day and to church every Sunday but took little interest in what else America had to offer.

Abraham’s 28-year-old daughter Yldefonsa Flores said voting does not interest her father.

“He feels like it doesn’t matter: Whatever you vote, your vote doesn’t count,” she said.

His 15-year-old daughter Monica said her parents “don’t even know the difference between” the two presidential candidates.

Missing church is unthinkable, but the family participates in few community activities, no civic groups and, for all its children, few school programs. So deep is the family’s piety that, when one daughter graduated as valedictorian of her high school class in 2000, she passed up college scholarships and became a nun.

While the family’s participation is nearly nonexistent in areas outside church, it is robust in the work force. Everybody of age works, except for Abraham’s wife, Isabel, who gets up at 4 a.m. to make and pack her husband’s lunch and spends the day watching her grandchildren while their parents work.

A study from the University of California at Los Angeles found that the strong emphasis on work is typical among Mexicans in the U.S., often at the expense of an education.

“School enrollment is lowest among first-generation Mexicans. . . . On the other hand, the group least likely to be in school, foreign-born Mexicans, is also the group most likely to be at work: 80 percent of men in this group hold a job. . . . Mexican young adult men work at the highest rates of all,” 89 percent, according to “Second-Generation Mexicans: Getting Ahead or Falling Behind?,” a paper by UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger and UCLA graduate student Renee Reichl.

This huge commitment to work is what Abraham’s 20-year-old daughter Isabel continually brings up when she expresses annoyance with anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic voices.

“Yeah, we might not have an education, but we’re working,” she said. “Is there something wrong for us to come and work?”

Although she was born and raised in the U.S., Isabel said she identifies more with Mexican culture.

“I come from here, but this is a big country, and they have traditions over there that my parents told me on their knee” as she was growing up, she said.

Slow progress

Whether that sentiment or other factors are hampering Hispanic progress, just about everyone agrees that there are causes for concern.

“Enrollment is lowest among first-generation Mexicans, among whom only 40 percent are in school,” the UCLA study says. “Mexican immigrants are just as disadvantaged at the turn of the century as they were three decades before.”

Joel Perlmann studied school enrollment, employment rates, income and other data to write Italians Then, Mexicans Now. Data show that Mexican immigrants take longer to progress in the U.S. than southern, central, eastern, non-Jewish European immigrants did about 100 years ago, the 2005 book says.

But Perlmann counters his own research with two statements:

First, so what if it takes longer than the immigrants of yesteryear? They’ll still make it, and there’s no reason to believe that the romanticized immigrants of Ellis Island have to be the measure of all things.

And second, don’t blame today’s low-skilled immigrants; they’re trying to get ahead in an economy where wage growth is much more sluggish than it was 100 years ago and labor unions don’t have nearly the strength to help immigrants as they did in the past.

The Gonzalezes, like many immigrants, offer an example of economic advancement when their lot in life is compared not with others but with where they came from.

Abraham and his wife grew up in poor Mexican villages without electricity or running water. Abraham was a migrant farmworker in his first years in the U.S. But things have improved greatly. The couple have owned their own home for 18 years. One daughter took some college classes, and another is taking community college classes.

A matter of trust

Paola Sapienza said Mexicans and the Italian immigrants of several generations ago might be alike when it comes to trust in others.

The native Italian and associate professor of finance at Northwestern University in Illinois said Italian immigrants, coming from a dysfunctional society, trusted no one except family and didn’t have the confidence in others needed to participate in society. She said this slowed their progress in America and might do the same for Hispanic immigrants.

She pointed to World Values Survey data showing that Latin Americans have less trust in others than most other nationalities.

Narciso Flores, a third-generation Mexican-American who is Abraham’s son-in-law and Yldefonsa’s husband, expressed such distrust with Hispanics and others.

When Flores was young and struggling to make ends meet, he lived in a house crowded with illegal immigrant workers. He liked and respected them but did not trust them. Flores said he hid his Social Security card and other papers from his roommates.

As Flores talked about how he progressed to better jobs and homeownership, it was clear that a sentiment of distrust lingered. He socializes almost exclusively with Hispanics, and although he counts his non-Hispanic co-workers as friends, he does not fully trust them.

“I got friends at work, but it’s not like I’m going to bring them home,” he said.

Sapienza said trust in others leads to more group participation, which strengthens communities. For the individual, it could mean new contacts, new allies, new opportunities.

For example, Yldefonsa took her stepson to Pee Wee football, and the participation led to a new opportunity.

She met a bank manager who hired her away from her fast-food-restaurant job because she needed a bilingual teller.

Several of her younger siblings said they got jobs in retail stores that needed people who could communicate with Spanish-speaking customers.

Language and traditions

Harrison said such efforts to accommodate Spanish speakers are wrong and prove that assimilation is not taking place.

“The problem is there’s never been any [other] immigrant group that’s accounted for even close to 15 percent of our national population,” Harrison said. “It’s so easy now to speak Spanish, particularly because of the concentration” of Spanish speakers in American cities.

A study released by the Pew Hispanic Center last year found that three-quarters of Hispanic immigrants do not speak English well. But the second generation is bilingual and the third generation barely speaks Spanish, the study found.

That parallels the Gonzalez family. Abraham does not speak English well. His wife does not speak it at all. His children speak it perfectly.

Abraham said he has trouble understanding his youngest child, 5-year-old Jesus, because he is so attuned to the English-speaking world at school and on television.

“The smallest doesn’t speak Spanish very well,” Abraham said. “He understands me, but I don’t understand him.”

The children watch mostly English television shows, but they speak Spanish with their parents and often help them translate.

Isabel, the daughter who said she identifies with Mexican culture, said people are sometimes rude to her and her family for speaking Spanish in public.

A gas station attendant asked her mother for her identification when there was a problem with the pump, and a customer yanked a clothing item out of her hand when she spoke Spanish to someone else.

“When I am at work and I speak Spanish, some people look at me like, ‘Why are you speaking Spanish?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I can speak both languages, and it’s a free country, you know,’ ” Isabel said.

She talked appreciatively of her parents’ efforts to tell the children about life in Mexico and to preserve Mexican traditions such as quinceañeras, special birthday parties for 15-year-old girls.

Some see these as ties that hamper assimilation, but Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said there’s no rule that says people can’t honor their home traditions and embrace their new country.

“To imply that you can’t teach multiculturalism and love of America is rubbish,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any accident that we’re a nation of immigrants and we’re also the world’s foremost superpower.”

Hopeful signs

Wilkes is among those who say plenty of evidence shows that Hispanic immigrants are integrating into American life.

In July, government figures showed a nearly 50 percent increase in Mexican immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship compared with the previous year. Anti-illegal-immigration efforts have propelled many Hispanics into politics to protect their kin, and both presidential candidates have tried to woo Latinos.

Michael Fix, a senior vice president of the Migration Policy Institute in New York, said Latinos might register to vote less than groups such as Asians, but those who are registered vote at higher rates than Asians.

For his own part, Narciso Flores sees hope for the future in the unity of the Gonzalezes, a family so religious that they demanded he get baptized as a Catholic before he could marry their daughter.

He said their traditional Mexican family values give them a strong support system for making it in life.

“This family is pretty strong. When things go wrong, they work things out. They try to advise each other about what’s right,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that.”

Hispanics in America

America’s largest minority group and fastest-growing ethnic group lags behind others in some aspects of American life.

College enrollment

Forty-five percent of young Hispanics were enrolled in college in 2006, compared with 49 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Anglos.

Teenage births

Hispanics ages 15 to 19 had the highest birthrate of any group in 2005. There were nearly 105 such births per 1,000 for Hispanics, 61 for blacks and 26 for Anglos.

Becoming citizens

In 2005, only 10 to 30 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants became U.S. citizens, compared with 50 to 65 percent of European immigrants and 65 to 70 percent of Asian immigrants. Mexican immigrant applications for citizenship jumped nearly 50 percent last year, partly because of Hispanic organizations’ push for citizenship and a rush of people trying to apply before higher fees took effect.

Civic involvement

Less than a third of Hispanics volunteered for neighborhood or civic groups, compared with 38 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Anglos.

sources: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. census, U.S. Defense Department, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics, Pew Center on the States, Afterschool Alliance, Barna Research Group