The Intergenerational Assimilation of Mexican Americans

I agree with Richard Rodriguez that economists have no special expertise in answering many of the most important questions raised by Mexican immigration. Indeed, economic arguments are often adopted by advocates on either side of the debate as a socially acceptable way of advancing positions that really have more to do with thorny issues of culture, race, and religion. Nonetheless, because it’s what I know something about, I’m going to focus on the issue of economic assimilation. Furthermore, I’m going to take a longer-term perspective by looking past the immigrant generation to instead consider the U.S.-born descendants of Mexican immigrants.

As a self-styled “nation of immigrants,” the United States takes great pride in its historical success as a “melting pot” able to absorb and unify people coming from diverse lands and cultures. At the same time, however, pride in our immigrant heritage always seems tempered by the nagging fear that the most recent arrivals are somehow different, that the latest wave of foreigners won’t integrate into the mainstream of American society. Certainly, this fear was voiced when Italians and other relatively unskilled immigrants arrived in large numbers at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. Time has assuaged this particular fear. In terms of outcomes such as educational attainment, occupation, and earnings, the sizable differences by national origin that initially persisted among earlier European immigrants have largely disappeared among the modern-day descendants of these immigrants

Are Mexicans following the same intergenerational trajectory as European immigrants? Many doubt it, and they can point to several factors that might slow the pace of assimilation by Mexicans today as compared to Europeans in the past. For example, consider the vast scale of current immigration flows from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, the substantial (though lessening) geographic concentration of these flows within the United States, and the fact that such flows have remained sizable over a much longer period of time than did the influx from any particular European country. These features of Mexican immigration foster the growth of ethnic enclaves in the United States where Mexicans and their descendants could, if they so choose, live and work without being forced to learn English or to Americanize in other important ways.

In addition, today’s economy provides fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to advance than did the economy that greeted earlier European immigrants. Around 1900, high school completion was uncommon for native-born Americans, so while many European immigrants arrived with relatively meager educations, their skill disadvantage was smaller than that faced today by Mexican immigrants who almost always lack the additional years of high school and college that have become the norm for U.S. natives. Moreover, recent decades have witnessed a large rise in earnings inequality among American workers, driven by substantial increases in the labor market payoffs to education and other indicators of skill. As a result, the skill deficit of Mexican immigrants has become even more of a liability in our modern economy that places a higher premium on knowledge and cognitive ability.

What do we know about the socioeconomic achievement of the children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants of Mexican immigrants? In light of the reasons for pessimism listed above, U.S.-born Mexican Americans have done surprisingly well, though certainly areas of serious concern remain. Like Europeans in the past, Mexicans enjoy ample intergenerational progress between first-generation immigrants and their second-generation children. Relative to their parents, the U.S.-born second generation experiences dramatic increases in English proficiency, educational attainment, and earnings. From this generational perspective, the lightning-rod issue of language—in terms of both English acquisition and Spanish preservation—loses all its spark. By the time they are teens, second-generation Mexican Americans overwhelming prefer to speak English rather than Spanish, and by the third generation most Mexican Americans no longer speak Spanish at all.

In general, the labor market opportunities available to U.S.-born Mexican Americans are similar to those afforded non-Hispanic whites with identical skills. On average, the employment and earnings of Mexican Americans are close to the outcomes of Anglos who are the same age and have the same schooling. In contrast, the situation for African-American men is very different, with large and persistent black-white gaps in employment rates and earnings even after accounting for education and other measurable skill characteristics. Consequently, the potential role of other factors—such as discrimination, family background, or neighborhood—in explaining economic disadvantage is smaller for Mexican Americans than for African Americans. Even outside of the labor market context, Mexicans seem to be faring better than blacks. On two important indicators of socially risky behavior, male incarceration and unwed motherhood, the rates for U.S.-born Mexican Americans exceed those of Anglos but do not approach the very high rates of African Americans.

There is one crucial area, however, where Mexican Americans lag behind both whites and blacks: education. This problem is well-known, although popular accounts often greatly exaggerate its magnitude by not distinguishing Mexican immigrants from U.S.-born Mexican Americans. Nonetheless, high school dropout is disturbingly prevalent for U.S.-born Mexicans, even for those in the third generation and beyond (i.e., for the U.S.-born grandchildren and later descendants of Mexican immigrants). Inevitably, college attendance and completion rates are also much lower for Mexican Americans. Because the educational disadvantage of this group largely explains their below-average earnings, finding a way to eliminate the schooling gap would go a long way toward bridging the economic divide that remains between Mexican Americans and the Anglo majority. As Rodriguez notes, the limited educational success of U.S.-born Mexicans may reflect cultural pressures to subordinate personal achievement for the sake of family unity, a social dynamic that Rodriguez aptly describes as the struggle between competing pronouns “I” and “we”. Surely, however, some other immigrant groups (e.g., Italians) faced a similar dynamic and still were able to integrate fully into American society, so perhaps we can expect that ultimately the same thing will occur for Mexicans.

Frequent intermarriage is one of the strongest signals of social assimilation by an ethnic group. After a few generations in the United States, so much intermarriage had taken place among the descendants of earlier European immigrants that most white Americans could choose among multiple ancestries or ethnic identities. For such individuals, ethnicity has become subjective, situational, and largely symbolic, and the social boundaries between these ethnic groups have been almost completely erased.

In this context, it is encouraging to note that intermarriage is widespread among Mexican Americans. More than a third of married, U.S.-born Mexicans have non-Mexican spouses, with the overwhelming majority of these non-Mexican spouses being U.S.-born, non-Hispanic whites. Because it takes two Mexican-origin spouses to create an endogamous Mexican marriage, whereas a Mexican intermarriage requires only one Mexican-origin spouse, the observed rate of intermarriage implies that almost half of Mexican-American marriages involve a non-Mexican spouse.

Co-author Brian Duncan and I have begun to study how Mexican intermarriage influences the ethnic identification of the children produced by these marriages. Not surprisingly, virtually all children with two Mexican-origin parents are identified as Mexican in Census data, but about 30 percent of the children of intermarried Mexican Americans are not identified as Mexican. As this dynamic plays out across generations, it is likely that an increasingly small fraction of the descendants of Mexican immigrants continue to identify themselves as Mexican. Moreover, this process of ethnic leakage is highly selective, because Mexican Americans who intermarry tend to have much higher education and earnings than Mexican Americans who do not intermarry. Consequently, available data for third- and higher-generation Mexicans, who usually can only be identified by their subjective responses to questions about Hispanic ethnicity, probably understate the socioeconomic attainment of this population. In effect, through the selective nature of intermarriage and ethnic identification, some of the most successful descendants of Mexican immigrants assimilate to such an extent that they fade from empirical observation. Unfortunately, although the direction of this measurement bias seems clear, we don’t yet have a good idea of its magnitude.

Overall, my reading of the evidence is that Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data. The relatively slow rate of educational improvement is a critical problem, however, especially because the schooling deficit of Mexican Americans is the major obstacle to their economic integration. Another potential concern is that many Mexicans enter the United States as illegal immigrants. Rodriguez makes the compelling point that growing up in an undocumented household could have profound effects on the children of Mexican immigrants, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any research on the intergenerational impact of illegal immigration. Despite these concerns, I agree with the broad conclusion reached by historian Joel Perlmann, whose recent book Italians Then, Mexicans Now carefully compares the intergenerational mobility experienced by low-skill European immigrants arriving in the United States around 1900 with that experienced by modern-day Mexicans. Perlmann suggests that “Mexican economic assimilation may take more time—four or five generations rather than three or four.” If Perlmann is right, then the long-term integration of Mexican Americans may not turn out all that differently from the success stories often recounted for previous waves of U.S. immigration.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In the lead essay to this month’s Cato Unbound, celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez offers a provocative meditation on the place of Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. “I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture,” Rodriguez writes, “But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.” Arguing that the question of Mexican immigration “might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist,” Rogriguez considers the religious and cultural character of Mexicans, and the role of Mexico as a repository of American sin, and American fear.

Response Essays

  • Victor Davis Hanson recounts the proposals from his book Mexifornia, and sets out a biting, detailed reply to Richard Rodriguez’s lead essay. “Here he has sadly advanced no real argument,” Hanson writes, “but instead offers only a melange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.” Hanson charges that Rodriguez, writing from his tony San Francisco haunts, offers only a cartoon version of his and others’ work, and fails to directly face the troubling economic and social consequences of unlawfully resident Mexicans in America evident to Hanson in the San Joaquin Valley.

  • In his reply to Rodriguez, Douglass Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes that “Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.” Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

  • How well are Mexican immigrants and their offspring assimilating? In his contribution to this month’s discussion, University of Texas economist Stephen J. Trejo lays out the latest findings. According to Trejo, “Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data.” However, a slow rate of educational attainment remains a “critical problem” that may delay the full integration of Mexican Americans.