Mexican Immigrants Prove Slow to Fit In

Why Mexicans assimilate at rates lower than newcomers from other parts of the world.

Immigration chart

In the heart of California's iconic Orange County—home to Disneyland and the bourgeois teens of MTV's Laguna Beach—is troubled Santa Ana. The county seat of 353,000, where nearly 6out of every 10 adults over age 25 lack a high school diploma, suffers from crippling poverty and an explosion in crime. In 2004, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government placed Santa Ana at the very top of its Urban Hardship Index—officially dubbing it worse off than Miami, Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark, N.J. With 76 percent of its population Hispanic, mostly Mexican immigrants, Santa Ana is the poster child for the troubles of the country's immigration policies and of Mexican immigrants in particular.

Now, a new study lays bare what sociologists and others have long argued: Mexican immigrants are assimilating to life in the United States less successfully than other immigrants. Sponsored by the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, "Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States" by Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy studies and economics at Duke University, introduces a novel assimilation index that uses census and other survey data to measure how similar select immigrant groups are to native-born Americans. Using such factors as intermarriage, English ability, military service, homeownership, citizenship, and earnings, Vigdor assembled a 100-point assimilation index. The closer to 100, the more assimilated an immigrant group. Overall, the report shows immigrants are weaving into the American fabric at a remarkable clip, despite arriving poorer and knowing less English than immigrants of a century ago. And they are gaining speed, with new arrivals assimilating faster than those who came more than 20 years ago. With a score of 53, Canadians are the most assimilated, followed closely by Filipinos, Cubans, and Vietnamese. The main outlier: Mexicans, with a score of 13—followed by Salvadorans.

Why Mexicans are faring so poorly in the United States is complicated, experts say. But the root of the problem is no surprise: Many Mexicans are here illegally, depriving them of rungs on the economic ladder and the opportunity to gain citizenship. "There are certain jobs or certain services you just can't get [as an illegal immigrant]," Vigdor says. "There are plenty of indications here that for those Mexican immigrants who are interested in making a more permanent attachment to the United States, their legal status puts very severe barriers in that path."

Since the 1990s, Mexicans' immigrant story has differed from that of their peers. When comparing Mexicans and Asians, "Asians show up with a lot more money, oftentimes," notes Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. "They have a higher education to begin with, and many of them are entrepreneurs." Past decades saw influxes of refugees from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Today's Asian immigrants are some of the best and brightest, which puts them on a faster track to assimilation via economic success.

The Asian experience recalls a general rule of today's immigrants. The farther you have to migrate, the wealthier you probably were in your country of origin. "Poor people can't afford a plane trip across the ocean, but poor people can walk across the border," Myers says. "Poor Africans and poor Chinese can't do it." Because of their proximity to the United States, poor Mexicans can make the trip. Indeed, their poverty impels them to risk the border crossing. But when they arrive, they arrive significantly disadvantaged, and they often qualify for jobs that offer little opportunity for social advancement. Other factors may also contribute but are more difficult to quantify: The leading contender is that the sheer number of Latinos in the United States has created a subculture that slows assimilation.

Indeed, in a unique multigenerational study spanning four decades, Generations of Exclusion, sociologists Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz found that many immigrants and their children had made slow progress assimilating for cultural and economic reasons. A large community means a large dating pool: Only 17 percent of third-generation Mexicans studied had married non-Hispanics. The authors found adult Mexican-Americans in the third and fourth generations lived in more segregated neighborhoods than they did as youths, largely because of the many new immigrant arrivals. Educational levels, meanwhile, lagged behind the national average. However, English ability was nearly universal, even among first-generation immigrants, which should ease the concerns of some lawmakers who want to make English the natural language. Significantly, though, 36 percent of fourth-generation Mexican-Americans studied could still speak Spanish.