In the inflamed debate about immigration, Californians and others angered about high levels of new arrivals often voice a central complaint: Immigrants are unwilling to learn English, are mired in poverty and are developing apart from the U.S. mainstream--in short, they are slow to embrace the time-honored tradition of assimilation.
But a new study tracing the progress of Southern California immigrants during the 1980s challenges such stereotypes, concluding that new arrivals are generally assimilating--and improving their economic well-being--at a brisk pace.
For example, only about one-third of Southland Latino immigrants between the ages of 5 and 14 spoke English proficiently in 1980. But by 1990, when that group was 10 years older, nearly 70% had mastered the language.
In another illustration, the study found that almost one-third of Asian men in their late teens and early 20s were living in poverty in 1980. Ten years later, the poverty level of those people had fallen to about 6%.
The lesson, said the study's author, Dowell Myers, a USC demographer, is that "immigrants do not remain unassimilated and unchanged. The speed of immigrants' upward mobility is striking--reflecting their rapid incorporation into the American economy and society."
To many social scientists, Myers' study bolsters the traditional notion that immigrants, by nature upwardly mobile, contribute positively to society--a view that has come under increasing attack as immigration becomes a powerful political issue.
"Immigrants are the self-selected strivers from other parts of the world--the energetic, hard-working, industrious," said Peter Morrison, a demographer with the RAND Corp., who was not involved in the study but has reviewed some of its results.
Nonetheless, the report, which is being formally released today, dramatizes how progress varies greatly among different groups.
In one major distinction, the study found that immigrants from Asia and those of European and Middle Eastern backgrounds tend to advance economically, learn English and become U.S. citizens more rapidly than Latinos.
The new study employed a special sorting technique that enabled researchers to follow only those immigrants who arrived during the 1970s and were counted in both the 1980 and 1990 censuses.
The quickest assimilation was achieved by those younger than 45, an outgrowth of numerous factors, including greater economic mobility for the young.
The following examples show how the proportion of men within each group improved in key categories. The findings in these cases counted men ages 25 to 34 in 1980:
Asians: The proportion of English speakers rose from 39% in 1980 to 53% in 1990. The percentage who became U.S. citizens skyrocketed from 15% to 67%. The number in poverty nose-dived from 17% to 6%.
Latinos: English proficiency increased from 13% in 1980 to 21% after 10 years. U.S. citizenship rose from 9% to 21%. The poverty rate dropped only slightly, from 21% in 1980 to 18% in 1990. However, the poverty rate of men ages 15 to 24 dropped from 26% to 16%.
Immigrants of European and Middle Eastern heritage: English-speaking ability rose from 62% in 1980 to 80% a decade later. Citizenship rates climbed from 10% to 51%. Poverty dropped from 19% to 6%.
None of the progress brings immigrants up to par with U.S.-born residents of the same age groups, Myers said. That gap is usually closed only by the immigrants' children.
Although some conclusions may seem obvious--after all, people tend to fare better as time goes by--the results clearly indicate that many immigrants are embracing the much-idealized American dream more quickly than casual observers and policy-makers might conclude.
The study's author professes to be neutral in the incendiary immigration debate, but the findings have immediately sparked renewed controversy among two opposing points of view.
"What we have in Southern California is not assimilation--it's annexation by Mexico," said Glenn Spencer, president of Voice of Citizens Together, a Sherman Oaks-based group seeking to reduce immigration levels.
But Vibiana Andrade, who heads the immigrants rights division of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the results were right on target.
"Immigrants are more likely than anyone else to be true believers in what the American dream is," said Andrade, who noted the increasing home ownership rates among new arrivals.
At the core of the yearlong research project is an effort to quantify the amorphous notion of assimilation. The much-debated concept is the source of considerable controversy in an era when multiculturalism and bilingualism are alternately praised and condemned.
Long exalted as crucial to forming the successful "melting pot" of immigrants, assimilation is now assailed in some quarters as an invitation for immigrants to abandon their roots and cultures.