Scholars examine Latino immigration and American national identity

Washington, DC--Latino immigrants to the U.S. are more diverse, successful, and assimilating more rapidly than is widely assumed in public debate, scholars observe in recent research published by the American Political Science Association (APSA). While immigration, assimilation, national identity, and relevant public policy questions are rightly being discussed today, the research finds that much of the concerns regarding Latino immigration are rooted in inaccurate assumptions, oversimplifications, and poor data.

These conclusions appear in a research symposium entitled "Immigration and National Identity," edited by Gary M. Segura (University of Washington), in the June issue of the Perspectives on Politics--a journal of the APSA. The symposium is online at http://www.apsanet.org/section_682.cfm and is comprised of four articles which consider different aspects of the social and political incorporation of Latino immigrants in the U.S. "The fight…over who is an American, and what constitutes 'American-ness,' is and has been an ongoing one for virtually the entire history of the United States," observes Segura in the introduction.

In "Culture Clash? Contesting Notions of American Identity and the Effects of Latin American Immigration," Segura and Luis R. Fraga (Stanford University) examine immigration and national identity in the context of American political development. Tracing immigration fears to the pre-Declaration of Independence era, Segura and Fraga agree that Anglo-Protestant culture shaped American national identity but question whether ethno-religious and linguistic traditions are the most critical "binding ties of nationhood" or "the erosion of in the dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture is inherently destabilizing…." They point to other successful multicultural democracies while cautioning against overlooking the less laudable aspects of Anglo-Protestant dominance which have historically negatively affected socially subordinate groups. Noting the role of the capacity for change in the longevity of the American republic--rather than the maintenance of a static, idealized Anglo-Protestant identity--they advocate a broader and comprehensive reading of American history in the immigration debate.

In "Mexican Americans and the American Dream" Richard Alba (The University at Albany, SUNY) addresses the often used claim that "Mexicans are on their way to forming a separate nation within the U.S." Underscoring the diversity within the Latino and Mexican immigrant population, the author observes that commonly used standards for assimilation such as comparisons of generations are misleading due to the fact that "different generations originate in different periods of Mexican immigration" as well as the varying impact of institutional discrimination over time. Alba challenges Samuel Huntington's recent work and concludes that direct evidence of the linguistic assimilation of Mexicans does "not support the notion of a cleavage into separate, language-based subsocieties," and instead reveals a pattern of "steady intergenerational progress." While Hispanic groups including Mexicans do show higher rates of bilingualism among 2nd generation adults than European groups in the past, Alba points to high rates of recent immigration as a main cause and asserts that by the third generation "English dominance, if not monolinugalism, is the prevalent pattern." The author concludes by noting that while some identify cultural and social isolation as the key obstacles to assimilation, it is wise to also consider the barriers to opportunities for immigrants and work to reduce them.

Susan Eckstein (Boston University) authored the third article, "Cuban Émigrés and the American Dream," which focuses on the Cuban immigrant experience and the claim that "Latin Americans are eroding our country's core Anglo-Protestant values." Eckstein observes that "what has been good for Cuban Americans has been good for America" in that the Cuban presence in Miami helped transform the city into a commercial hub spanning the Americas and from which all Americans benefit. Notably, the cultural aspects of that transformation were essential as Cuban identity and the Spanish language were central in spurring growth. Moreover, the enduring Catholic religious identity of most Cubans has not hindered their economic integration despite claims that Anglo-Protestant values are the keys to assimilation. Eckstein also examines the "social and cultural separateness" between Cuban Americans and non-Hispanics in Florida that has led Cubans to form their own municipal, voluntary, and professional associations over time--a key aspect of their success. However, despite the fact that Cuban Americans exhibit high rates of citizenship, voter registration and political participation, they remain "internally divided and increasingly so," a phenomenon driven by the changing nature of the type of Cubans immigrants--from those who fled the Castro revolution and were typically privileged in the pre-revolution era, to those who have lived under the Castro regime. These different cohorts have "shared unequally in the American Dream" and differ in their levels of economic success, language adoption, political engagement, and overall assimilation in the U.S. She concludes by observing that the Cuban American experience has been uniquely shaped by its encounter with Anglo society in Florida and that "if there is not one single Cuban American experience, even less is there a single Hispanic experience."

The fourth article, "Mexican Immigrant Political and Economic Incorporation," was co-authored by Frank D. Bean, Susan K. Brown, and Ruben G. Rumbaut (all from the University of California, Irvine) and investigates the empirical basis of the claim that American identity and culture is being undermined by a "trend toward cultural bifurcation" driven by Mexican and Latino immigration. The authors observe that despite the widespread use of data in the immigration debate, "actual longitudinal data that track individual immigrants over time or measure true intergenerational change…have largely been lacking." Available information is based on "short-run, static depictions of the incorporation experiences of new immigrants," and understandably "invites the conclusion that…Mexican immigrants in particular, are generating a permanent and largely illegal underclass." Drawing upon new survey data, they address two important claims: that Mexican immigrants are not transitioning to residency or citizenship, and that Mexican immigrants aren't making educational gains. The new data show the proportion of Mexican immigrants who transition to legal residency after arrival has doubled in the past 20 years, making clear that "unauthorized migration status can and often does change…and is not a permanent, static property of Mexican immigrants." Notably, almost half of illegal immigrants had transitioned to citizenship 30-35 years after arrival. These transitions, in turn, have opened other doors to assimilation as "substantial education gains are evident across generations" as well: 52% of those whose immigrant fathers had naturalized have received college degrees or college education, compared with 43% of those whose immigrant fathers were still legal residents and 13.6% of those whose fathers were still unauthorized. The authors conclude that their research "uncovers considerable upward economic mobility" rooted in patterns of transition to authorized status and educational improvement over time--"findings contrary to…fears about their intentions and unassimilability."

This research speaks directly to fundamental questions such as the nature of American society and its core principles, the ability of recent immigrant groups to attain the American Dream, their social and political status in the United States, and the choices facing policy makers today in the debate over immigration. Given the importance of Latino immigration, the symposium, states Segura, aimed to bring together scholars from a variety of intellectual traditions while devoting "considerable effort to investigating the empirical claims regarding Latino immigration and assimilation often made by those who perceive threat."

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The American Political Science Association (est. 1903) is the leading professional organization for the study of political science and has over 14,000 members in 80 countries. For more information about political science research visit the APSA's media website, www.politicalsciencenews.org.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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