Mexicans and the U.S. Melting Pot

The integration (once called assimilation) of foreigners into the United States is a long-standing issue. Some fear that today’s immigrants aren’t integrating into U.S. culture and society as past waves did. Mexicans—the largest single group today with some twelve million immigrants—in particular are seen as guilty of maintaining their distance. The late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington summed up these views, writing that Hispanics “threaten to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages,” and generally “lack initiative, self-reliance, and ambition.”

Others more sympathetic to Mexican immigrants point to studies that show Mexicans and Mexican-Americans acquire English in similar ways and at similar speeds to previous immigrants. Second and third generations pick up English as fast as—and many faster than—their Italian, German, or Polish predecessors. These supporters also point out that the rules are much stricter than during the great European immigration waves. Still drawn by market forces, their legal limbo keeps them and/or their families in the shadows (making it harder to truly integrate). This camp also denounces the extreme U.S. visa backlog, which can take over a decade (incentivizing illegal entry), and the high number of deportations, which can make Hispanics more fearful of engaging with other sectors of U.S. society.

The Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center recently released a report by Senior Advisor David R. Ayón entitled, “The Legal Side of Mexican Immigration.” Using data from the Office of Immigration Statistics (part of the Department of Homeland Security), Ayón measures the integration of legal and legalized Mexicans. He looks specifically at permanent residents in the United States, and the over five million Mexicans that either became legal or came to the U.S. legally since 1985.

The study finds that Mexicans are less likely to become citizens than other groups in the past, or than their contemporaries (Vietnamese, Indians, Chinese, Cubans, and El Salvadorans all have higher naturalization rates). Instead, many Mexicans remain legal residents for decades. Of the roughly three million that became eligible to apply for citizenship through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), more than half have retained their green Mexican passport.

The big question is why. Here Ayón’s analysis of the data points to possible answers. He finds that urban dwellers are more likely to become citizens than those who live in rural areas. This suggests that access to services, information, and greater attention from local politicians motivates legal residents to take the next steps. In other words, and flouting the conventional wisdom, urban ethnic enclaves may increase rather than decrease integration.

Other factors that seem to matter—and to increase naturalization rates—are increasing hostility toward migrants, stronger law enforcement, and the prospect of higher application costs. Ayón points out that some of the hurdles for many of the 1986 IRCA beneficiaries are about to go down—English tests are not required for immigrants who have been U.S. permanent residents for more than twenty years, or who are over the age of sixty five. Perhaps the coming years will see a jump in naturalization rates for this cohort.

Still, even if a lower percentage than other groups, some 1.5 million Mexicans have become U.S. citizens over the last twenty five years. In 2011 alone 94,000 Mexicans naturalized; more, in sheer number, than any other group, and more than double the next two groups—Indians and Filipinos—combined. Also, whatever their status, they are parents to nine million U.S. natives. These immigrants are and will remain a large and growing part of America’s social fabric. Looking at this data, the challenge is to strengthen, not fray, their connection to the United States.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This post originally appeared at LatIntelligence and is posted with permission.

2 Responses to "Mexicans and the U.S. Melting Pot"

  1. Frank Youell   July 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    The question we should be asking is the impact of large low-skill immigration from Mexico (and elsewhere) on our nation. This topic has been extensively researched and the results are highly negative. A number of references make this point all to clearly.

    1. The 1997 National Academy of Sciences study found that each low-skilled immigrant costs $89,000 over the course of his/her lifetime. See

    “The NRC estimates indicated that the average immigrant without a high school education imposes a net fiscal burden on public coffers of $89,000 during the course of his or her lifetime. The average immigrant with only a high school education creates a lifetime fiscal burden of $31,000.”

    2. There is little evidence that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of low-skill immigrants (legal and illegal) will do much better. Samuel Huntington looked at this subject in his book, “Who Are We”. See Table 9.1 on page 234 or The bottom line is that educational attainment rises from the first to the second generation and then plateaus at levels far below the national average. For example, even by the fourth generation only 9.6% of Mexican-Americans have a post-high school degree.

    3. The Heritage foundation found that low-skill immigrant households impose huge tax costs on Americans. See “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer” ( The summary is

    “In FY 2004, low-skill immigrant households received $30,160 per household in immediate benefits and services (direct benefits, means-tested benefits, education, and population-based services). In general, low-skill immigrant households received about $10,000 more in government benefits than did the average U.S. household, largely because of the higher level of means-tested welfare benefits received by low-skill immigrant households. In contrast, low-skill immigrant households pay less in taxes than do other households. On average, low-skill immigrant households paid only $10,573 in taxes in FY 2004. Thus, low-skill immigrant households received nearly three dollars in immediate benefits and services for each dollar in taxes paid. A household’s net fiscal deficit equals the cost of benefits and services received minus taxes paid. When the costs of direct and means-tested benefits, education, and population-based services are counted, the average low-skill household had a fiscal deficit of $19,588 (expenditures of $30,160 minus $10,573 in taxes).”

    4. Heather MacDonald has written extensively on the bleak realities of mass unskilled immigration. I recommend “Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight” ( Key quote

    “If someone proposed a program to boost the number of Americans who lack a high school diploma, have children out of wedlock, sell drugs, steal, or use welfare, he’d be deemed mad. Yet liberalized immigration rules would do just that. The illegitimacy rate among Hispanics is high and rising faster than that of other ethnic groups; their dropout rate is the highest in the country; Hispanic children are joining gangs at younger and younger ages. Academic achievement is abysmal.”

    5. Edward P. Lazear’s (CEA / Harvard Economics) paper “Mexican Assimilation in the United States” has a wealth of statistics showing the raw deal from south of the border. Summary quote.

    “By almost any measure, immigrants from Mexico have performed worse and become assimilated more slowly than immigrants from other countries. Still, Mexico is a huge country, with many high ability people who could fare very well in the United States. Why have Mexicans done so badly? The answer is primarily immigration policy.”

    See also “Lazear on Immigration” ( Money quote

    “Immigrants from Mexico do far worse when they migrate to the United States than do immigrants from other countries. Those difficulties are more a reflection of U.S. immigration policy than they are of underlying cultural differences. The following facts from the 2000 U.S. Census reveal that Mexican immigrants do not move into mainstream American society as rapidly as do other immigrants.

    Immigrants from Mexico do far worse when they migrate to the United States than do immigrants from other countries. Those difficulties are more a reflection of U.S. immigration policy than they are of underlying cultural differences. The following facts from the 2000 U.S. Census reveal that Mexican immigrants do not move into mainstream American society as rapidly as do other immigrants.

    1. Eighty percent of non-Mexican immigrants are fluent in English. Among Mexicans, the number is 49 percent.

    2. Non-Mexican (working) immigrants have an average wage income of $21,000 a year. Mexican immigrants have an average wage income of $12,000 a year.

    3. The typical non-Mexican immigrant has a high school diploma. The typical Mexican immigrant has less than an eighth-grade education.

    4. Compared to other Hispanics, only 49 percent of Mexican immigrants are fluent in English, compared to 62 percent of non-Mexican Hispanics.

    5. Mexican average incomes are about 75 percent that of other Hispanic immigrants, and Mexican immigrants have about two and a half fewer years of schooling.”

  2. fornelas   July 18, 2012 at 7:52 am

    It is difficult to navigate upstream. After 30 years I still have the same cultural fights I had long time ago. Thanks to my self-reliance I have been able to keep afloat. Besides my high education I can fix my cars, my heat pump, my roof, my electrical problems, my toilets.
    And trying to change jobs in the current economic conditions it is almost impossible. Living in a hostile state (AZ) is not that easy.