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ASA Congressional Briefing on Immigration Packs the House

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Office

With about 33 million foreign-born persons living in the United States, government policy regarding immigration is not being ignored. This is the reason that the American Sociological Association, in collaboration with six co-sponsoring associations—the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, National Council of La Raza, Population Association of America, and the Population Resource Center—organized a briefing by three distinguished sociologists. They offered timely research-based perspectives on immigration in the United States to a packed House of Representatives briefing room of nearly 100 congressional staff, local association leaders, and federal agency representatives.

The briefing, “A Nation of Immigrants: Current Policy Debates Meet New Social Science Research,” featured Rogelio Saenz, Texas A & M University, and author of Latinos and the Changing Face of America at the Turn of the Century; Douglas S. Massey, Princeton University, co-author of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration; and Victor Nee, Cornell University and co-author of Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and the New Immigration. The speakers presented new social science data on immigrant demographics and stressed that immigration, often viewed as a regional issue, is central to American national life.

Nearly two-thirds of the 33 million immigrants in the United States are naturalized citizens or legal permanent residents. Another estimated 9 million are undocumented residents, of whom experts estimate 6 million are in the workforce. The panel discussed significant research on immigrants in America including where they settle, and why; how have immigrant workers benefited the United States and what are the potential societal costs; and what research has shown about immigrants’ assimilation experiences over the past century.

During her introductory remarks as moderator of the briefing Executive Officer Sally Hillsman, said, “the purpose of this briefing is to bring to policy- and law-making audiences the fruits of basic social science research that reveal the extent and effects of immigration in the United States. Such research holds promise for improving the odds that legislative and other policy efforts are informed by research and thereby more likely to be successful and enhance our lives…. President Bush’s recent proposal to establish a temporary worker program has put immigration reform back on the congressional agenda. As Congress debates various proposals, findings from a large body of social science research can help lawmakers make informed, evidence-based decisions related to immigration policy.”

Saenz discussed the immigrant population trends of Latino immigrants and more specifically Mexicans. He spoke about demographic features of Latino immigrants, their industrial niches, the historical context surrounding Mexican and Latin American immigration to the United States, and the impact of that immigration on U.S. demographics. His presentation also looked at the new migration destination pattern of Latino immigrants. One surprising demographic trend is that the states fastest growing in terms of Latino population (between 1990 and 2000) were North Carolina (394%), Arkansas (337%), and Georgia (300%). Saenz said that research indicates that, “With increasing time in the United States, Mexican immigrants have higher rates of naturalization, higher rates of female labor force participation, higher presence in higher-status occupations, higher labor market wages, and lower poverty rates.”

Massey focused on current immigration policies in relation to their stated goals, especially with regard to Latino migration. Discussing the efficacy of maintaining a strong border patrol, for example, Massey showed data suggesting that repressing entrance at the U.S.-Mexican border has fallen short in suppressing the flow of illegal immigrants to the extent intended by policymakers. Increased enforcement efforts, Massey said, are based on the assumptions that most migrants intend to settle permanently in the United States and that increasing the costs of entry will decrease migration. Research indicates, however, that neither of these assumptions is supported by the data. The simple assumption that cross-border wage differentials alone modulate the immigrant flow is also unsupported by the data, Massey said. Instead, the attractiveness of the United States is governed by the relative availability of a host of economic, market, and bureaucratic factors that govern how easily one can obtain desired goals (e.g., home mortgage) in one’s home country.

“There are consequences for misunderstanding the facts about immigration, including a sharp decline in return migration, nationalization of immigration, decline in wages for legal migrants, a waste of federal and state money, and a loss of lives,” explained Massey. Massey said that the data suggest that the best solution to alleviate the problems associated with illegal immigration would be to increase the quotas for Mexicans for legal entrance into the United States. Managing their entrance, rather than attempting to repress it, would make it easier to control. “The paradoxical effect of militarizing the border is not to deter people from entering but to deter them from going back once they are here,” he said.

Nee presented historical data on the assimilation of Mexican immigrants in the United States.

His research shows that past immigrants successfully assimilated and contributed to American society and that migration driven by labor shows a significantly slower intergenerational rate of assimilation and entry into the mainstream than migration driven by human capital factors. By the second generation, most immigrants speak English at home, have greater educational attainment, and have more professional occupations. His data suggest this pattern continues. “Mexican immigration continues a familiar pattern of inter-generational assimilation, evidenced in a shift to English-speaking, broad trends of socioeconomic mobility, and a gradual incorporation into the American mainstream.”

Nee’s data led naturally to commentary on Samuel Huntington’s recent book Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which Huntington argues that America, at heart, has been and in many ways should remain a Christian, Anglocentric country and that current Hispanic immigrants will dramatically change this because they are not assimilating. Nee stated that the data do not support Huntington’s basic premises that there will be a deepening “clash of civilizations” between Mexico and the United States and that the latter will be greatly disadvantaged in global competition if it fails to uphold its Anglo’ “cultural identity and cohesion.” The data instead reveal a familiar pattern of intergenerational assimilation, adoption of English, trends toward socioeconomic mobility, and gradual incorporation into mainstream America.