Why the U.S. Is So Good at Turning Immigrants Into Americans

As a glance at Europe shows, it's not as easy as it looks.


When chipotle and kimchi abound in the suburbs and Univision co-hosts a presidential debate, it is easy to forget how sudden and extraordinary our ethnic makeover has been. Americans middle-aged or older were born into a country where immigrants seemed to have vanished. As recently as 1970, the immigrant share of the population was at its lowest level on record, and the foreign-born were mostly old and white. Now the immigrant share of the population is nearing Ellis Island–era highs, and the African, Asian, and Latin American newcomers are easily recognized as minorities. They hail from every corner of the developing world and settle in every corner of the United States, making new gateways out of places with no memory of huddled masses. Since 1970, the foreign-born population of greater Atlanta has risen more than 3,000 percent.

The most remarkable thing about this age of migration is its global reach. Movement to rich countries has tripled in the past half century. Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Ireland have proportionally more immigrants than the United States does, and Spain has nearly as many. White Brits account for less than half of London’s residents; Miss Israel is Ethiopian. But there is little agreement about the impact of migration or what policies should guide it. As Paul Collier, an Oxford economist, notes in his new book, Dubai got rich while bringing foreigners in, and Japan stays rich while keeping them out. The movement of goods and money is governed by global norms and institutions. The movement of people is not. The most intimate form of globalization is the least orderly and least understood.

Collier drew attention a few years back with The Bottom Billion, which called for rescuing the global poor by unconventional means (including military intervention) that he cast as evidence of his tough-mindedness. In Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World, Collier is even more eager to present himself as an enemy of orthodoxy. Like most economists, he thinks the benefits of migration have generally exceeded the costs; unlike many, he sees cause for worry should migration significantly rise. He’s arguing against colleagues who say that letting more people from poor countries work in rich ones is the single best way to reduce global poverty. (If you want to help someone from Mali, they urge, let him mow your lawn.) Dismissing their approach as ethically “glib,” Collier warns that rapid ethnic change can threaten fragile social bonds and weaken support for the welfare state—imperiling the “fruits of successful nationhood” that migrants seek.

It’s the rare economist who calls an economic perspective a “woefully inadequate” guide to action and then switches the subject to culture. In part, Collier’s approach reflects the wariness that even many left-leaning Europeans feel after the past decade, which included the Amsterdam murder of Theo van Gogh, the London bus and subway bombings, and the Paris riots. But immigration alarms Americans, too (and always has). From progressives anxious about the marginalized poor to conservatives worried about Hispanic conquest and Sharia law, pessimistic voices can be heard across the political spectrum. Yet the more Collier dwells on what could go wrong, the more I found myself appreciating how much in the U.S. has gone right over the past four decades. If “two cheers for us” seems Pollyannaish for a precarious work still in progress, how about a cheer and a half?

The global story, in Collier’s telling, begins after World War II, when three “golden” decades of rapid growth brought fabulous wealth to rich countries and left other countries further behind. Wider wage gaps gave the poor more reason to move, and cheaper travel and communications sped the way. The big winners have been the migrants themselves, many of whom have been able to multiply their earnings five or 10 times. Collier sees a mixed impact on the countries they have left. Remittances have brought in billions of dollars, but in the smallest and poorest countries, he thinks the benefits have been outweighed by brain drain.

The most intimate form of globalization is the least orderly and least understood.

Countries that take in migrants have received modest economic rewards overall, he says, along with the joys of diversity—fresh thinking, chicken tikka masala. But Collier cautions that diversity can also have “corrosive effects” on trust, cooperation, and the willingness to redistribute income. He highlights research by Harvard’s Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, who has found that diversity reduces trust not only between ethnic groups but also within them. “Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends … and to huddle unhappily in front of the television,” Putnam has written. Arguing that migration left unchecked will continue to accelerate, Collier insists that rich countries must set limits or put their “critical achievements … at risk.”

My own travels across migration corridors suggest more benefits to the developing world than this account allows, although in truth there isn’t enough research to know. Remittances (about $400 billion a year) bring poor countries more than three times as much money as they receive in foreign aid, and brain drain has a competing narrative in “brain gain.” Some migrants return with new skills, and the mere hope of working abroad can create a pool of educated workers larger than the pool of those who leave. The lure of overseas work attracts so many Filipinos to nursing school that the Philippines has a nursing glut. And while it’s true, as Collier notes, that migration often leaves behind the most desperately poor, the next strata up are plenty poor and desperate, too.

There is no question that migration puts strains on destination countries. The norms that once suppressed gun violence in Britain are eroding, Collier writes, and the gun culture of Jamaican migrants may be part of the story. Culture clash closer to home is the subject of Outcasts United, a captivating account of a soccer team of young immigrants that I happened to be reading alongside Exodus. In the late 1990s, an unsuspecting Atlanta suburb exploded with refugees, including Bosnians, Burundians, and a Sudanese teenager who beheaded his nephew in his Georgia apartment. “Little in Clarkston looked familiar to the people who’d spent their lives there,” writes the author, Warren St. John. “Women walked down the street in hijabs and even in full burkas … Clarkston High School became home to students from more than fifty countries.” Longtime residents withdrew, even from each other. The mayor, a self-described defender of “Old Clarkston,” banned soccer from the city park, leaving the refugee-youth team—the Fugees—no place to play.

This is extreme. Most immigrants aren’t war refugees, and most destinations attract a less complicated jumble of ethnicities. Still, even the Clarkston story has bright spots. A dying grocery store found new life selling ethnic food, and a Baptist church reinvented itself as a multicultural congregation. Robert Putnam (whose study St. John also cites) himself is cautionary rather than alarmist. “In the medium to long run,” he has written, “successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity and dampen the negative effects of diversity.”

Whether the U.S. will do this again, as it has in the past, is an open question. On the positive side, many researchers have found that children of immigrants attain levels of education and employment rivaling those of children whose parents are native-born. Virtually all of them learn English. Unlike Australia, France, and Sweden—Sweden!—the U.S. hasn’t had big immigrant riots. Dixie has two Indian-American Republican governors, and a Kenyan American occupies the White House. Yes, there are nativist kooks, immigrant gangs, ugly ethnic conflicts—but that makes European envy all the more interesting. “Children growing up in America almost unavoidably assimilate American values,” Collier writes. “The same is far from true in Europe.”

The reasons go beyond America’s nation-of-immigrants heritage, although that’s important. Compared with Europe, the U.S. attracts more immigrants who share the dominant faith. (Imagine if Mexicans built mosques.) An economy that, until recently, had lots of entry-level jobs has made it easier for immigrants to find work. American schools generally provide students second chances, while Europeans are more likely to leave stragglers on vocational tracks. The U.S. also had Martin Luther King Jr.—the civil-rights movement, cresting just before the current mass migration started, bequeathed a robust apparatus for promoting opportunity. And American culture sells, in all its tawdriness and splendor. In Europe, the children of immigrants sometimes cling to the Old Country more than their parents do: sons import brides. In the U.S., the bigger danger is assimilating too fast: children get fat eating french fries and watching TV.

Immigrants to the U.S. do face barriers to their integration, but the problems differ from the Euro-accented ones that concern Collier. Nearly 30 percent of the foreign-born in America—about 11 million people—reside in the U.S. illegally, and the political system is gridlocked. Blocking so many people from legal employment, thwarting their education, and leaving their families in constant fear is a perfect way to produce the underclass that some critics of migration fear. (From Collier’s perspective, the issue is straightforward: Borders leak. He sees no escape from the need to periodically offer paths to legal status.)

The other big problem for the new migrants is inequality. Income gaps are the widest they have been in nearly a century. Family structure is splintering along class lines, and school quality is increasingly unequal, too. Since a future with no diploma is dim, the children of unschooled immigrants have to make an especially large generational leap. Although the superior fluidity of American society used to be taken for granted, recent research has found that the U.S. lags behind many European countries on measurements of mobility. The dangers confronting the Fugees went well beyond the bigoted Georgia mayor to conflicts with a native underclass short on opportunity and long on gang violence. Rapid ethnic diversification can certainly strain a town. But worse than bowling alone is the prospect of never being able to afford a trip to the bowling alley. With the climb to middle-class stability increasingly steep, that’s an unhappy prospect immigrants and natives may share.

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