Second-Generation Question Mark

By Jacoby, Tamar | The American Enterprise, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Second-Generation Question Mark

Jacoby, Tamar, The American Enterprise

The Real Test Is How Immigrants' Children Will Do

Arjun Malhotra is a classic immigrant success story, albeit with a modern twist. His first entrepreneurial triumph was back at home in India, where he and five buddies started a business in his grandmother's attic; today, HCL is the largest information technology company in India. Since arriving in the United States in 1989, Malhotra has built two enterprises from the ground up, one of them an Internet consulting firm that expects to earn $60 million in the coming year. Like countless immigrants before him, the soft-spoken, frugal engineer--he still wears a watch he bought in India 20 years ago--has managed to combine the best of both worlds: the discipline and drive ingrained in him in the old country and the unparalleled freedom to reinvent yourself that is the hallmark of America. Still, for all his success, Malhotra is worried about his children. "Are they going to have the same drive I had?" he asks. "I don't think they will. I had to make something of myself. I had nothing else to rely on. But that's not true in their case, and I think their lives will look very different than mine."

It's a common worry, and if anything, Malhotra's is a mild case. After years of boundless optimism about the likely fate of immigrants and their children, the conventional wisdom among scholars who study them turned markedly darker about a decade ago. The concern began when economists warned of the "declining quality" of the migrants who have arrived since the 1960s, many of them unskilled and poorly educated, destined for the lowest rungs of the American economic ladder. Then, in the early '90s, two seminal academic articles appeared--one by the eminent sociologist Herbert Gans, the other by Cuban-born scholar Alejandro Portes and a young collaborator, Min Zhou--warning that the newcomers' children might do even worse than their parents did. Neither essay was based on empirical findings; there was virtually no research yet on the new second generation. But both offered deeply troubling speculative scenarios, and two grim catch-phrases entered the social-science lexicon: "second-generation decline" and "segmented assimilation"--the likelihood, that is, that some immigrants will assimilate into the middle class, while others assimilate into poverty and the pathologies that come with it. Scholars and public alike began to notice disturbing indices: the large number of Vietnamese refugees on welfare, the rise in Dominican single-parent families, the alarming high-school drop-out rate among Mexican-Americans. Some pessimists began to talk with alarm about the prospect of a permanent immigrant underclass.

Nearly ten years later, the jury is still out. By now, according to informed estimates, recent immigrants and their children account for nearly 60 million Americans, or close to one-fifth of the population. Until recently, it was the parents who got most of the attention, with press and public drawn to their stirring stories of struggle and determination. But in fact, the successes and failures of the second generation, both those born here and those who come as small children, will be far more important in setting the course for ethnic America. Will they learn English? Will they assimilate? Will they make it into the middle class?

This second generation hails from dozens of countries and every conceivable social class, ranging from Arjun Malhotra's millionaire offspring to the children of illiterate Nicaraguan farm workers. The majority have not yet reached adulthood, and their fortunes are far from certain. Portes, now a professor at Princeton, predicts that most will follow a middle course. They won't move up as steadily or easily as the children of the European immigrants who arrived a hundred years ago; nor will they have as much trouble as the blacks and Puerto Ricans who began to enter the middle class in the 1950s. But even this scenario leaves room for a wide array of possibilities, and as their numbers grow a large question mark hangs over the second generation: What affect will they have on the nation they are joining? …

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