Immigrants to the United States are integrating into American society as fast and as broadly as ever, according to a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
It’s more than just obtaining U.S. citizenship. Newcomers are reaching benchmarks like homeownership, English-language proficiency, education and job diversity quickly enough that their children are attaining levels of education and employment on a par with those whose parents are native-born.
Two children of South Asian immigrants — Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley — serve as the governors of their states. President Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, holds the highest office in the land. More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first- or second-generation Americans.
Is there some kind of “secret sauce” at work that speeds up the process of “becoming American?” Perhaps. According to Mary C. Waters, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, there are “several distinct American advantages.”
- Birthright citizenship laws mean that anyone born in America is automatically a citizen, with the same rights and responsibilities as someone whose roots go back generations.
- The U.S. educational system is flexible enough that children can start school without having mastered English or having the same level of education as their peers. The system is designed to help them catch up as quickly as possible to get their high school diploma.
- Legal immigrants do not face the same barriers to entering the job market as they would in some other countries. Labor laws and the economy have helped to create entry-level jobs that encourage them to immediately begin their economic integration.
- Civil rights practices like affirmative action and laws that ban discrimination and promote diversity also help immigrants become rapidly included in the workplace and accepted into universities.
It’s true that immigrant families are transformed as part of “becoming American.” About 85 percent of foreign-born Americans speak a language other than English at home. Their children overwhelmingly become fluent in English, and by the third generation, English is their primary language.
But in the process, immigrants are transforming America, at the local level and beyond. Soccer has become a major league sport, salsa now outsells ketchup, and the bagel has become more American than the doughnut.
In the past, America was described as a “melting pot,” where immigrants were somehow absorbed into the dominant culture. It’s really more like a soup, with many ingredients working together to enrich the basic stock.