How Well Are New Immigrants Integrating? How Can We Help?

The United States is experiencing its fourth wave of mass immigration, with most of the newcomers arriving from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Like previous immigrant waves in the country’s history, this one has generated anxiety about immigrants’ ability to integrate into the society.

So, how are they doing? More to the point, how is our society doing in welcoming them, helping them fit in, and benefiting from what they have to offer?

Immigrant rights march in Washington, DC, 2006. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

In a new report, Immigrants in the United States: How Well Are They Integrating into Society?, sociologist Tomás Jiménez examines the integration of immigrants in five areas: language proficiency, socioeconomic attainment, political participation, residential locale, and social interaction with host communities. The report is a publication of the Migration Policy Institute in cooperation with the European University Institute.

While integration is not always a smooth process, Jiménez finds that most recent immigrants are integrating reasonably well—and indeed may be learning English faster than those who came at the beginning of the last century. Remarkably, the process has unfolded almost entirely without the help of policy intervention.

Somali youth from San Jose, California, listen to a presentation about Somalia in Oakland, 2011. Photo by Priority Africa Network (PAN).

Still, Jiménez makes clear that progress among the different immigrant groups is highly uneven, and Latinos are not faring as well as immigrants from other backgrounds.

Of particular interest to us at LETC are the report’s findings on the importance of English:

When they first arrive, immigrants face some natural barriers to full social, economic, and political participation. The gap between them and the rest of society narrows over time, however, as immigrants and their children learn English, interact with members of host communities, and become involved in the political process (emphasis added).

The report calls English language proficiency “a virtual requirement for full participation in U.S. society.”

That’s where Language ETC comes in. We help people learn English. We encourage friendships between new immigrants and members of the host community. And with the citizenship classes that LETC is now offering, we help qualified immigrants become US citizens so they can take part in the political process.

Volunteer registers a new voter in Los Angeles, 2006. Photo by Korean Resource Center.

Tellingly, the MPI report criticizes the “laissez-faire approach to immigrant integration” that in the past relied on a strong job market and high-quality public education. Nowadays, in many parts of the country, those conditions don’t hold. Jobs are scarce, and public education is severely frayed in areas where immigrants are concentrated.

So we can’t just sit back and assume that newcomers will integrate themselves. If that was ever true, it’s not true now. We’ll all benefit if the society takes a proactive approach to absorbing the young workers and families that the United States—with its aging population—desperately needs. And providing opportunities to learn English is a big part of that.

Family at the International Arab Festival, Dearborn, Michigan, 2008. Photo by Plaubel Makina.

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