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New Research Debunks the Myth That Mexican Immigrants Can't Assimilate

A new study finds that immigrants from our neighbor to the south are learning English and regularly interacting with non-Mexicans at higher rates than in previous decades.
Marchers, many of them undocumented, attend a Valentine's Day rally organized by the New York Immigration Coalition on February 14th, 2017, in New York City.

Marchers, many of them undocumented, attend a Valentine's Day rally organized by the New York Immigration Coalition on February 14th, 2017, in New York City.

Earlier this year, retired news anchor Tom Brokaw was widely criticized for arguing that Hispanics in America "should work harder at assimilation." Brokaw was repeating one of the most frequent complaints lodged against immigrants—and a popular justification for tightening restrictions on foreigners seeking to enter the country.

In fact, a new study of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented, finds that, by several key gauges, they are integrating into American society to a far greater degree than in previous decades.

"Migrants surveyed over the last 20 years are learning and using English at increasingly higher rates, and are growing less isolated from non-Mexicans over time," writes Brown University sociologist David Lindstrom.

Lindstrom reports that this shift occurred "despite the rise in anti-immigrant public sentiment, and policies designed to marginalize unauthorized migrants." While levels of economic integration have stayed stagnant over that period, this largely reflects the challenges of the 70 percent of respondents who lacked authorization to be in the country, and thus didn't have the necessary documents to fully enter the financial system.

Lindstrom utilized data from the Mexican Migration Project, which tracks the behavior and attitudes of Mexican immigrants to the United States. He analyzed survey responses from 4,137 heads of households who had immigrated to America for some period of time between the years 1965 and 2016.*

The respondents were a mix of people who regularly traveled back and forth from Mexico to the U.S. to work (the large majority without their spouses or children), along with people who moved to the U.S. permanently, and others who ultimately moved back to Mexico.

Lindstrom measured six types of integration: linguistic (how well the respondents understood English, and whether they used it at home and/or work); social (whether they had close relationships with whites, blacks, or Asian Americans); family (whether their spouse and children lived in the U.S.); employment (whether they were paid by check and had taxes withheld from their wages); financial (whether they had an American bank account or credit card); and asset (whether they owned a home or business in the U.S.).

Lindstrom found that Mexican immigrants' linguistic and social integration have steadily increased over the years. "The general trend for Mexican migrants is one of increasing contact and interaction with people outside of the Mexican community, regardless of whether they were temporary, long-term, or settled migrants," he writes.

"On the other hand, employment, financial, and asset integration ... do not appear to have changed over time," he adds. That reflects the limitations faced by undocumented immigrants, who generally cannot obtain the legal forms of identification needed to, say, open a checking account.

He also discovered that, "contrary to concerns that migrant networks might encourage insularity from the host society," having family members in the U.S. is "associated with higher levels of integration in all domains." This finding suggests that the process derisively known as "chain migration" actually facilitates integration into American society.

Lindstrom notes that the survey does not feature a nationally representative sample of Mexican immigrants. So his findings, published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, are not definitive.

Nevertheless, they largely align with those of Stanford University sociologist Tomas Jimenez, who in 2011 reported that immigrants to America "are integrating well." Lindstrom's data supports Jimenez's argument that "the best way to foster the integration of undocumented immigrants into American society is to provide a path to legal status."

*Update—July 15th, 2019: This article has been updated with the correct period of years included in the survey.