Immigration works fine when newcomers can integrate

 13 Mar 2017 - 17:12

The US would be nothing if not for immigrants. It was mass immigration that gave the U.S. the power to win the World Wars and the Cold War, and to attain the market size that made it the dominant manufacturing power of the late-19th and 20th centuries. The genius of the Founders was to recognize that immigration wasn't inherently dangerous. They threw out the more restrictive notions of nationalism based on race and religion that prevailed in Europe, and made a big bet on the ability of diverse peoples to come together as one. George Washington, addressing the fears of those who worried that immigrant groups would fail to forge a single cohesive nation, summed up his bold thesis in 1794:

By an intermixture with our people, [immigrants], or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.

So far, Washington's bet has paid off in spectacular fashion -- the US remained cohesive, and zoomed ahead of rivals such as Russia, Germany and Japan, countries that defined their nationhood by blood and soil. But the process hasn't always been a smooth one. Several times, the US has been riven by spasms of anxiety about whether the most recent waves of immigrants would become one with the existing population. The Know-Nothing movement of the mid-1800s was based on the premise that Catholic immigrants would poison American culture with papal influence. And in 1924, fears of anarchist terrorism and job competition led to the Johnson-Reed Act, which helped put an end to the waves of newcomers from Italy and Eastern Europe.

Asset manager and finance blogger Josh Brown recently posted a great roundup of cartoons from the last era of anti-immigrant anxiety. Here was my favorite example, from 1919:

A century later, the anxiety has returned. Though the American populace is generally pro-immigrant, a substantial minority is very worried about Islamist terrorism and job and wage competition. And that minority includes the people holding the reins of power in the Donald Trump administration. Trump himself expressed the concern in a recent speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference:

Take a look at what's happening in Sweden. Take a look at what's happening in Germany. Take a look at what's happened in France. Take a look at Nice and Paris.

Conservative intellectuals and leaders have also expressed doubts that immigrants will assimilate. The worry is usually that the Muslim religion or the Spanish language will serve as a barrier that keeps Middle Eastern or Hispanic newcomers separate from the rest of the American populace, leading to social strife and violence.

Those on the left tend to dismiss these concerns as racist. But the worries are understandable. If immigrants fail to merge with the U.S. population at large, the Founders' bet would finally fail after centuries of success. The question of whether new immigrants will integrate -- a better word than "assimilate," since it emphasizes that native-born culture also changes when newcomers arrive -- isn't a trivial or racist one. Indeed, it's essential to the future of the country, since the U.S. economy needs immigrants in order to stay afloat.

Fortunately, the evidence points to the opposite -- despite the right's fears, the newcomers are integrating very well.

Much of the evidence is summarized in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled "The Integration of Immigrants into American Society." The biggest piece of good news is that English is retaining its place as the nation's universal language. Neither bilingual education programs nor the Spanish option on phone menus has prevented the descendants of Hispanic immigrants from discarding their ancestral tongue. Here is 2013 data from the Pew Research Center:

By the third generation, the number of Hispanics who mainly speak Spanish shrinks to a rounding error.

The second piece of good news is the high rate of intermarriage. The NAS report reveals that between 30 percent and 50 percent of American-born Hispanics and Asians tend to marry outside of their ethnic group. Though this is a bit smaller than some earlier immigrant groups -- non-Orthodox Jews, for example, outmarry at a 71 percent rate -- it still means an attrition rate of half to three-quarters every two generations. Already, intermarriage between whites, Asians and Hispanics is causing ethnic lines to blur and integration to accelerate.

Intermarriage is even breaking down barriers between Muslims and other Americans. A 2015 Pew study found that 79 percent of American Muslims marry within the faith. That implies an attrition rate of about half every three generations -- slower than for Asians and Hispanics, but still reasonably rapid. And this intermarriage rate will probably accelerate over time, as it has for Jews, Mormons and other religious minorities.

Economically, too, the newcomers are doing well. By the third generation, much of the income gap between immigrants and the native-born disappears. The gap between Hispanics and whites never fully closes, probably because Hispanic immigrants have tended to have lower education and skill levels, and because richer Hispanics tend to outmarry at higher rates. Overall, there's no reason to worry that recent waves of immigrants will become a permanent underclass.

So the news on integration is good. The fears of the right are unfounded. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be vigilant. Integration happens naturally, but a nation can put up barriers that slow it considerably. The U.S. must avoid these roadblocks at all costs.

The first and most obvious hurdle to integration is xenophobia. If the Trump administration manages to whip up hostility to Hispanic, Asian and Muslim immigrants, they may feel they have no choice but to retreat into ethnic enclaves. Anti-immigrant fears would then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The country must therefore maintain a welcoming and inclusive attitude.

Another way to encourage fast integration is to shift the immigrant mix toward the high-skilled. Though all immigrants integrate, those with more education and skills tend to do so faster. Fortunately, U.S. immigration has been moving quickly toward a more educated population, probably as a result of the end of illegal immigration. The Trump administration should be very careful not to choke off this positive trend by scaring high-skilled immigrants away or restricting their entry. A shift to a Canada-style merit-based immigration system, which Trump has promised but not yet delivered, would be a plus.

If the US manages to tamp down its latest wave of anxiety, the future is bright. Once again, immigrants will fulfill George Washington's dream, and the country will remain "one people" -- bigger, stronger and more dynamic than before. The great American experiment is still working. The country's leaders just have to step back and let it work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.