Trajectories for the Immigrant Second Generation in New York City

By Mollenkopf, John | Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Trajectories for the Immigrant Second Generation in New York City


Mollenkopf, John, Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review


1. Introduction

It has become a truism to say that immigration has transformed American society since 1965. Beginning with "gateway" cities like New York and Los Angeles, the effect of new immigrants now extends to small pork- or chicken-processing towns in Iowa or North Carolina. Indeed, the March 2004 annual demographic supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) indicates that almost 12 percent of America's residents were born abroad, doubtless an underestimate. In places where first-generation immigrants concentrate, like New York City, immigrants now make up almost half the adult population--and in the case of Miami, more than three-fifths. This outcome has led scholars to undertake many studies of the new immigrants, for example, using individual traits to model individual earnings or looking at the school performance or health conditions of the children of immigrants.

One leading researcher, George Borjas, has warned that the relatively low skill levels of recent immigrants bode poorly for their lifetime earnings and chances for upward mobility (Borjas 1990, 1999). Incorporating new immigrant ethnic groups also poses many other challenges, such as heightened tensions among ethnic and racial groups (Gerstle and Mollenkopf 2001). Despite problematic aspects of the effect of immigration, however, many observers, including this one, think that the new immigrants constitute a clear net plus for American society. Immigrants are "positively selected" from their populations of origin (Feliciano 2005). They pass a difficult test by resettling themselves and their families in the United States. They often take jobs natives do not want to perform, work hard for long hours, contribute a great deal of entrepreneurial creativity, and bring valuable cultural capital--qualities that their wages or other standards may not reflect immediately. While competition from immigrants may put some low-skilled natives, often members of minority groups, at a disadvantage in the labor market--and indeed highly skilled immigrants may compete against highly skilled natives--it seems to me that the strong work effort, relatively low labor cost, and varied talents of immigrants expand the overall economy and benefit most native-born people. Certainly, the official New York City position is that immigrants have prevented the city from becoming smaller, poorer, and more like Philadelphia (Lobo and Salvo 2004, p. xiv). Regardless of how many books scholars write on this topic, however, they are not likely to resolve anytime soon the question of whether new immigrants are good or bad for America.

That may not be the most important question, however. Instead, the fates of their children--the new second generation--will likely shape how we evaluate the current epoch of immigration. If the children of immigrants continue on their parents' upward path, the judgment is likely to be positive. After all, we judge the last great era of immigration, the 1880s to the 1920s, to have been a success because subsequent generations advanced, on average, beyond the previous ones (DiNardo and Estes 2000; Card 2005). As more and more descendants of post-1965 immigrants come of age today, scholars have begun to focus on what is happening to them. In addition to studies of individual outcomes, studies of this group, which includes native-born children of immigrants, have considered their family and neighborhood contexts (Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, and Waters 2004). To paraphrase Max Frisch, "we asked for workers, but families came."

The children of immigrants are numerous. The March 2004 CPS indicates that 10.6 percent of America's residents are native-born individuals with at least one immigrant parent (who might, following Rumbaut [2003], be termed 2.0- or 2.5-generation immigrants). If we subtract the 1.5-generation youngsters (defined as those who arrived by age twelve and then grew up here) from the immigrant total and add them to the native children with at least one immigrant parent, then adult immigrants over seventeen make up about 9. …

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