Opinion Columns & Blogs

Richard Alba and Nancy Foner: America needs an integration policy

The United States takes in far more legal immigrants each year than any other nation on Earth, more than a million. We have a great deal of confidence in our ability to welcome and integrate these newcomers and their children.

But our successful integration of immigrants is less exceptional – whether we take that word to mean unique or excellent – than we think. That is the conclusion of our comparative study of immigrant integration in six North American and Western European countries (the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands).

Our focus, we should note, was on low-status immigrants who came with limited education, took jobs at the very bottom of the labor market and were considered outsiders. Examples are Mexicans in the U.S., North Africans in France, and Turks in Germany and the Netherlands.

Immigrant families in the U.S. trailed those in the other countries when we compared income relative to the national average. Just before the Great Recession began, the average income of Hispanic immigrant households in the U.S. was only 57 percent of that of native households. For non-EU immigrant families in European countries, this fraction varied from 75 percent to 90 percent.

The degree of residential segregation of low-status immigrant groups is also worse in the U.S. than in any of the other five countries. No country in Western Europe has an equivalent to the South Bronx – an area encompassing more than a million people, including numerous immigrant families living among other minorities, with a poverty rate approaching 40 percent.

When it comes to the social and economic mobility of the children of immigrants, there are better (Great Britain) and worse (Germany) countries for immigrants than the U.S. these days. In almost all countries with large low-status immigrant populations (with the exception of Great Britain), the second generation experiences sizable educational inequalities compared with the native majority.

Despite signs of considerable improvement since 2000 in the educational records of Hispanic youths, the educational inequalities in the U.S. are as great as in much of Western Europe.

There is one respect in which the U.S. is exceptional: Americans are quick to accept immigrants as Americans-in-the-making and to regard their U.S.-born children as full-fledged members of the national community. The immigrants and their children often reciprocate by showing high levels of patriotism, evidenced by a willingness to serve in the military.

But this acceptance should not be confused with on-the-ground institutional arrangements that improve the opportunities for immigrants and their children to move ahead, such as the maternelles, the universal pre-K system in France that brings the children of immigrants into a mainstream-language setting before age 3.

In the U.S., accepting attitudes toward immigrants mask the need for public action and policies to facilitate integration. This is partly due to another bedrock American value: self-reliance. Looking back to their own families’ immigrant narratives from the past, many Americans downplay the struggles and difficulties their ancestors faced in their migration and remember the ultimate, and successful, assimilation.

And Americans fail to appreciate how much the massive mobility of immigrant families in the mid-20th century depended on post-war government investment, which in just three decades expanded fivefold the capacities of the country’s higher-education system.

We cannot take for granted that our country will succeed at integration in the future. The U.S. needs to take more affirmative steps to promote immigrant integration, whether this is a matter of outreach to encourage naturalization (something Canada does), co-ethnic mentoring programs to assist students whose immigrant parents lack education beyond primary school (something the Netherlands does) or policies to support social mixing and decent public housing (again, the Netherlands).

The United States needs to give up the illusion that it is the brightest beacon of hope for immigrants and realize that it can learn from others.

Richard Alba and Nancy Foner are the authors of the new book “Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe.” Alba is distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Foner is distinguished professor of sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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