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A Better Way of Looking at Immigrant Assimilation

Confronting the “immigrant paradox” in the classroom.

By Elena Gooray


(Photo: Alberto G./Flickr)

Last Sunday’s massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, by a gunman who pledged incoherent loyalty to extremist groups in the Middle East, has re-energized our discussion of the cultural status of Muslims in the United States. Donald Trump struck again last Tuesday with broad generalizations against Muslim Americans, telling Fox News that among second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants, “for some reason there’s no real assimilation.” (On Sunday, Trump went further, calling for racial profiling of Muslim Americans.)

“Assimilation” is a thorny term to define, and looking only at how strongly Muslim Americans identify with their national heritage ignores the other side of the coin: the extent to which Muslims, as cultural minorities, may be excluded in American life. Vox has highlighteddata indicating that Muslims in the U.S. identify strongly as Americans, rather than primarily or exclusively as Muslims, to establish that U.S. Muslims are, in fact, well-assimilated. Relying on that comparison for a complete picture of assimilation is problematic; given rising Islamophobia that equates “Muslim” with “un-American,” the question of American identity sometimes demands impossible choices between heritage and nationality. In such an environment, navigating between Muslim roots and daily American life can be fraught.

These findings challenge a variety of common and lazy assumptions about the arc of immigrant life in America.

The truth is that we don’t quite know what American identity means to second- and third-generation immigrants. But recent data helps unpack a stubborn problem for that community: declining educational achievement over time.

Reporting their findings as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Umut Özek of the American Institutes for Research and David Figlio of Northwestern University looked at educational achievement among Latino and Asian immigrants in Florida’s public schools. (To reflect national demographics as closely as possible they accounted for unique aspects of Florida’s immigrant make-up: large Cuban and Puerto Rican populations, which tend to be socioeconomicallyadvantaged compared to other Latino groups.)

With the most comprehensive long-term data yet used to tackle this question, Özek and Figlio found more evidence for the “immigrant paradox”: the finding that, for the children of immigrants, as the American Psychological Association frames it, “becoming American [might be] a developmental risk.” In keeping with the wider literature, Özek and Figlio found that first-generation immigrants who moved to Florida during grade school scored better on tests and graduated at higher rates than second-generation immigrants, who in turn out-performed third-generation students. But what’s new in their study is that, for Latinos in particular, time introduces another puzzling dynamic: With each generation, English language skills, wealth, and quality of education explain less and less of the achievement gap with white students whose families immigrated two generations or more back.

These findings have important implications for American education; first- and later-generation Latino and Asian immigrants — the populations driving America’s current migration wave — are expected to make up more than a third of the population by 2050. Beyond that, Özek and Figlio’s paper challenges several common and easy assumptions about the arc of immigrant life in America.

“In these later generations, the families have spent more time in the U.S. They’ve acquired the language and are more acquainted with the school system, their peers, their neighborhoods — to life here in general. You would expect the [educational] outcomes to improve,” Özek says. “But we find the exact opposite.” That goes against a classic theory in migration studies that assimilation follows a “straight line” of improvement: that the longer families live in the same country, the more they integrate and so prosper in society. Instead, immigrants may experience downward educational (and in some cases economic) mobility.

The natural next question is why. Özek and Figlio tested one possibility: that “immigrant optimism��� pushing achievement upward declines over time. Their initial results tentatively support that theory. In their study, first-generation immigrants enrolled in advanced high school classes at similar rates as second-generation students. But even when they attended the same schools as predecessors with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and academic histories, third-generation students were less likely to enroll in advanced classes, in effect “under-shooting” relative to peers.

It will take more research to sort out these dynamics and how they fit in the bigger picture of American class mobility (where, for example, black children are less likely to escape poverty than white children). But as a start, this data encourages a broader conversation about immigrant achievement in schools than is allowed by the current policy points of English-language learning and documentation status, Özek says. “It’s beyond language, the challenges these students face. Especially the more established generations.”

Even when some kind of “real assimilation” occurs among immigrants or their children, it’s far from obvious where that assimilation leads.