Manhattan Institute: U.S. Immigration System Gets Some Important Things Right

Frustration with the state of the U.S. immigration system is endemic; restrictionists rail against any proposal that smacks of amnesty for illegal immigrants, and decry what they view as an overly-permissive system – one that is “soft” on illegal immigration, while immigrant rights groups argue that people circumvent the system only because it is so badly broken – so much so that it makes certain categories of immigrants, such as siblings of citizens, wait years – even decades – for the opportunity to emigrate. Business groups, in turn, argue for fewer restrictions on hiring immigrant labor – especially farm workers, kitchen help, landscapers, and construction workers, but also in high-tech industries that need more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates than we can supply from the native-born talent pool alone. There is widespread agreement that our immigration system is broken, and badly in need of an overhaul – even though agreement is elusive on precisely what’s broken, and how to fix it.

Against that dreary backdrop, it is refreshing to learn that not everything is badly out of whack in the U.S. immigration system. In fact, as a recent Manhattan Institute study finds, the U.S. does a better job than its European counterparts in one key area: immigrant assimilation. (See Comparing Immigrant Assimilation in North America and Europe, by Jacob L. Vigdor, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, 24.May.2011.)

Why is assimilation important?  According to the Manhattan Institute study:

“The rate at which immigrants assimilate deeply influences how natives perceive them, as well as the effects of immigration on labor markets, government budgets, and society. Immigrants who assimilate rapidly produce benefits that they share with their hosts. By learning English, for example, they expand the range of opportunities that the marketplace can offer, and they make it easier for others to benefit from their skills and labor. By becoming citizens, they affirm a commitment to core civic values and the obligations of true membership in society. In essence, assimilation takes people who, though living among us, are often viewed as alien, hostile, or indifferent to the values of their new homeland, as well as a drain on its resources, and turns them into productive citizens of diminishing distinguishability.”

The author of the Manhattan Institute study, Jacob Vigdor, devised an assimilation index to measure the relative success of the U.S., compared to other countries, in integrating immigrant populations into the warp and weft of our society. Vigdor characterizes his index as “a measure of the degree of distinction between the native- and foreign-born populations of the United States at a single point in time.” He explains that his index measures these distinctions with respect to three groups of indicators:

“Economic indicators used in the computation of the index consist of educational attainment, earnings, occupational prestige, employment status, and labor-force participation rate. In the case of the last four indicators, the index performs separate comparisons of males and females, since differences between them in labor-market participation have been meaningful historically and remain so.”

“Civic indicators consist of citizenship and veteran status. In the case of the latter, males and females are considered separately, since military service is more common among males.”

“Cultural indicators consist of ability to speak English, marital status, number of children in an adult’s household, and whether a spouse is native- or foreign-born.”

The Manhattan Institute study finds that different ethnic and national groups assimilate at different rates. Looking at overall rates of immigrant integration, Vigdor has determined that – among the largest immigrant groups – several from Asia have assimilated especially well, while those from Mexico and Central America have not.

The study breaks down these trends in greater detail than we have space for here, but generally finds that the U.S. does a better job of integrating immigrants than its European counterparts do:

“The position of Mexican immigrants in American society, for example, is not a good one, yet it is clearly superior to the position of, say, North African immigrants in Italy, or of Muslim immigrants in Switzerland. Because the United States is a nation where civic identity has been, for some time, wholly separated from ethnicity, it is easier to imagine the complete integration of newcomers here than in almost any other country.”

That “other country,” by the way, is Canada, which Vigdor says “places immigrants on an even more rapid path to the mainstream.” The study concludes that nations with better systems of immigrant integration ultimately will prosper, becoming a “destination of choice for highly skilled and entrepreneurial migrants from around the world.” He also cautions against restrictionist immigration policies:

“Immigration fueled the major public works projects of the nineteenth century and its urban industrialization during the early twentieth century. Between 1700 and 1920, while maintaining an open-borders immigration policy, the nation transformed itself from an agrarian economy poorer than any country in Europe into the world’s wealthiest. In the succeeding era of restricted immigration, the United States has managed to sustain its relative position in the world economy, but that status will be threatened on many fronts in the years to come. Immigration policy, perhaps more than any other factor under the nation’s control, will determine whether the nation’s preeminence will be maintained.”

The Manhattan Institute study makes fascinating reading, for a number of reasons. Naturally, it is encouraging to read that at least something seems to be working in the American immigration system. What may be most interesting is the source: it comes not from a left-leaning immigrant advocacy group, but from a libertarian think tank that is a pillar of the American conservative establishment. Apart from the anti-immigrant activists on the right, there may be greater bipartisan agreement on immigration – at least on the fundamentals – than either side is ready to admit. One hopes this can be translated into constructive changes to our current immigration structure.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.