Emerging Issues: Hyphens and Documents, Hopes and Fears

September 5, 2011
by Bill Barnes

Immigrant integration is about "the hyphen," says Tamar Jacoby, head of ImmigrationWorksUSA. That is, it's about blending in and also maintaining distinct culture, for example, "Hungarian-American." 

Achieving that hyphen (and, often, having it fade in the next generation or so) has always been a joint accomplishment of the receiving community and the arriving individual. It's now happening "steadily," albeit "unevenly," in the United States, according to a new report. 

This is a big deal, not only because some progress is occurring but also because this news contrasts with what you get from your regular encounters with the news media and national leaders. It's a neglected story and, when it's told - by local leaders and others - it could contribute to re-shaping constructively the nation's rather dismal discourse on immigration.

The fabric of America's social and economic future is being woven, patchwork style, in the nation's communities, many of which are not traditional immigrant gateways and thus lack strong habits for weaving this kind of integration. Like objects at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, the patches have personalities and problems, speak and tell stories, and change irregularly. The overall pattern is never stable. 

But we do not have here a happily-ever-after tale. Even if the feds finally get around to clarifying immigration policy, local integration challenges will remain.

Integrating Newcomers

The new study, by Tomas Jimenez, a sociologist at Stanford, measures the ways that the nation is and is not integrating immigrants. His very significant service is to pull together research findings that give some specificity to the topic and thus some frame for informed discussion. 

The new immigrants of the past several decades are "integrating reasonably well" when measured by language proficiency, socioeconomic attainment, political participation, residential locale and social interaction with host communities. These newcomers, for example, seem to be learning English faster than the wave of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. More immigrants are naturalizing and they are doing so more quickly than in the past. The longer they live here, the less spatially segregated they are. 

If there is a caveat, Jimenez notes, it is with home ownership; Latinos, especially, have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. 

The key factors that have facilitated integration are good and accessible public education and a strong job market. Both of these are in shaky condition these days. 

The most significant barrier to integration, Jimenez says, is the unauthorized status of a significant portion of the newcomers. That unresolved status creates "precarious legal circumstances" that pervade newcomers' lives - often, authorized folks and U.S. citizens, too - and have negative effects on their children and their communities. 

Local Policies and Practices

Resolving the documents/authorization issue is ultimately a federal question, but federal elected officials seem to have recently given up on making immigration policy. Congress' last try was the unconstructive electoral and legislative discourse in 2006 - 2007. There's no indication that they will speak clearly on this topic in 2012, let alone produce satisfactory action. 

Important things have happened incrementally - for better and worse and mainly around enforcement issues. For example: the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement employer audits; Department of Homeland Security conscription of local police for immigration enforcement; the new deportation reviews; and state laws, some supportive and some hostile to immigrants.

In the context of all that, localities have been testing various strategies in their laboratories of democracy. Scholars have sought to identify both the factors that promote local government policy-making in this arena and the factors that explain why some places do anti- and some do pro-immigrant policies. 

Some common explanations for anti-immigrant actions focus on size and growth of immigrant populations, wage competition with locals and "xenophobia or racial prejudice among native-born populations." 

Karthick Ramakrishnan and Tom Wong found that big cities are much more likely to act than smaller cities. But the best predictors of what kind of local action will be taken are "partisan politics and immigrant protest activity." As to the former, "cities in Republican areas are about twice as likely as those in Democratic areas to propose and pass restrictionist legislation and about half as likely to propose or pass pro-immigrant measures."

Daniel Hopkins reports that when (1) "salient national rhetoric [that] politicizes immigration" combines with (2) a sudden influx and visibility of immigrants (especially in localities that are not traditional gateways), then "immigrants can quickly become the targets of local political hostility." That's what happened after 2001 when immigration and terrorism were wrongfully conflated and then, even more, during the 2006-07 Congressional fights. 

Talk and action affect each other. In their study of six metropolitan regions, Manuel Pastor and John Mollenkopf urge, for example, that regional business elites - who can be a "critical counterweight" against negative initiatives - should "weave immigrants into their...visions for regional futures."

Public and policy discussion needs more strong voices that highlight the integration process, that search for what is working and what is not, and that frame options based in optimism rather than fear. Our better futures lie in securing the newcomers' contributions to a more perfect union.

Details: Jimenez' report, "Immigrants in the United States: How Well Are They Integrating into Society?" is available at www.migrationpolicy.org. See also resources from NLC's immigrant integration program.

Bill Barnes, director for emerging issues at NLC, can be contacted at barnes@nlc.org. Previous monthly columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage.