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Immigrants give us their gifts every day

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- Though some people proudly think of America as a nation of immigrants, many forget that the pilgrims on the Mayflower were immigrants, too. And, of course, waves of immigrants have been arriving on the shores of the United States for so long that social science has more than a century of hard, statistical data about them.

The factoid I like to trot out every time immigrants are erroneously tied to crime is that they are more law-abiding than native-born U.S. residents. That has been the case for at least 100 years.

Shortly after the 2010 census detailed a large and growing Hispanic population, a big part of the story was how poorly educated many immigrants were, especially those from Latin America.

Inadequately staffed public schools bulged with children who spoke languages other than English at home, even as the No Child Left Behind Act and the college-for-all movement put pressure on K-12 schools to graduate more Hispanic students and pushed universities to diversify their campuses.

Many public policy experts warned that we needed to make major investments in the exploding Latino community lest their undereducation and unsure immigration status combined to create a permanent underclass of disaffected new Americans.

Those fears weren't completely overblown, and this confluence of factors did, in fact, spur heavy investment in Hispanic students. Today, Hispanic high school students boast an all-time low dropout rate of 10% (compared with 34% in 1996).

They're also going to college more than ever -- up to 37% from 22% between 2000 and 2015. Today, 28% of Hispanics have at least an associate degree, up from 15% in 2000.

I could go on and on with statistics about how Hispanics are bettering themselves, but the point is that they arrive as immigrants and find a way to thrive -- just like every prior wave of immigrants.

In fact, according to a new working paper last month from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the children of immigrants have had greater success at climbing the economic ladder than the children of U.S.-born families in the same income group. The study, titled "Intergenerational Mobility of Immigrants in the U.S. over Two Centuries," looked at millions of father-son pairs over the decades.

The researchers analyzed census data from 1880 (when immigrants were mostly from Northern and Western Europe) and 1910 (when they mostly came from Southern and Eastern Europe), all the way to the most recent data from 2010. They found that this pattern of social mobility has been stable for more than a century -- even through the immigration "invasion" scares of the late 2000s.

 

The study also looked specifically at immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other major South American countries and compared them with children of poor Finnish, Scottish, Norwegian and other European immigrants. The researchers found that the average income rank of the Hispanic group is the same or better as the European group, relative to each other and adjusted for inflation.

The researchers concluded: "Children of first-generation immigrants growing up in the poorest 25% of the distribution end up near the middle as adults. These children of immigrants have rates of economic mobility that are 3-6 percentage points higher than their U.S. born peers. For those in the top quarter of the income distribution, the gap in mobility is about 1-5 percentage points."

They also found what nearly every researcher has concluded in nearly all studies of immigrants: Even immigrants who come to the U.S. with no generational wealth or few academic skills bring a lot to the U.S. economy, mainly their healthy children, who keep America young. I'd add that they also carry an ironclad belief in the American dream, the energy of fully buying in to a country's work ethic, a love of our culture and no room to fail.

It's a powerful combination that people who were born here in the U.S. have a hard time understanding, because they've lived in relative comfort -- relative, that is, to the soul-crushing poverty, violence and government corruption of many other countries.

But successful, law-abiding, society-enriching immigrants are like gravity -- a natural phenomenon that acts upon our lives whether we recognize it or not.

Don't despair about the current political climate: Immigrants never have and never will be dependent on others' belief in their capacity and potential to make the most of themselves. It's something they carry across borders and give to the U.S. in full every day.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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