Hyphens and Documents, Hopes and Fears

By Barnes, Bill | Nation's Cities Weekly, September 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Hyphens and Documents, Hopes and Fears


Barnes, Bill, Nation's Cities Weekly


Immigrant integration is about "the hyphen," says Tatuar 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. …

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