Hispanic Immigrants Find Their Own Way to the American Dream

Just because they don't get college degrees, doesn't make them failures


FWD.us, a pro-immigration group founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, last week launched a month-long ad campaign to shame Republicans into passing comprehensive immigration reform that includes "amnesty" and a guest-worker program for Mexicans.

It's a noble cause. But advancing it requires not a shame campaign. It requires an educational campaign to dispel the latest restrictionist myth: Latinos are ambitionless losers who don't assimilate.

Whenever immigration reform gathers steam, some smart-set conservative comes along peddling "facts" to show why more Hispanics would destroy America's social fabric. President George W. Bush's reform effort was derailed partly because respectable conservatives pulled out from the fever swamp of ultra-restrictionists the notion that the Hispanic community is not a paragon of family values, as widely believed, but a cauldron of "runaway illegitimacy." Manhattan Institute's Heather MacDonald wrote that soaring Hispanic out-of-wedlock birthrates — three times those of whites and Asians and one-and-a-half-times those of blacks — were "creating a new U.S. underclass."

But that was only half the story. The other half was that Hispanic marriage rates are almost identical to those of whites with 77 percent of Latinas being married by age 30. This means that most of these unwed moms eventually tie the knot. (One reason maybe their out-of-wedlock birth rate is so high is that Hispanics are disproportionately Catholic and regard abortion as a sin.)

What's more, given the high percentage of two-parent Hispanic households, their kids are not being raised without dads. Indeed, Roberto Suro noted in a highly underreported 2007 Brookings Institute study that the overall decline in the two-parent family with children between 1990 and 2005 would have been much greater had it not been for Hispanic families. The number of such households declined among non-Hispanics by 600,000. However, because they increased by 2 million among Hispanics, the overall number of two-parent households increased by 1.4 million.

"Given the value put on two-parent households in the debate over the state of the American family," noted Suro, "one had to judge the Latino effect as positive overall."

Now another argument has surfaced to show that America's great assimilation machine has stalled when it comes to Hispanics. According to New York Times' Ross Douthat, generally a super-thoughtful conservative, although second-generation Hispanic immigrants make progress over first-generation ones, stagnation sets in by the third. Nor is this trend likely to cure itself given that rising unemployment and family breakdown are already hindering upward mobility for America's underclass.

But a new study by Jennifer Lee and others at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that such fears are overblown. In a survey examining the intergenerational mobility of various immigrant groups in Los Angeles, they found that the educational attainment of Mexicans does stall after the third generation, compared to Asian immigrants. "However," they note, "it is far from clear that this cross-sectional finding represents any kind of downward mobility or stagnation."

Mexican median household income rises from $27,748 in the first generation to $53,719 in the second and $62,930 in the third. Likewise, the rate of homeownership rises from 35.2 percent in the 1.5 generation to 62.3 percent in the second and nearly 72 percent in the third-plus.

These rates are lower than those for Asian immigrants, but not by a lot. And they are actually more impressive given that Mexicans often come to the country illegally without fancy degrees, unlike most Asians. "When we measure success as progress from generation to generation," maintains Lee, "Mexican-Americans come out ahead."

So how does one reconcile stalled educational progress with rising mobility? The researchers, who conducted in-depth interviews, discovered that Mexicans are extremely entrepreneurial, starting small service businesses in gardening, roofing and moving, areas that most native-born shun. But conventional socioeconomic indicators such as educational and professional occupational scales don't fully capture this, dumping Mexicans in the "unsuccessful category."

This suggests that before we declare Mexicans unfit for America, we examine our assumptions. Indeed, many of us wouldn't be in the country if such faulty litmus tests had been applied to our ancestors.

And who better to sell that message than a college dropout like Zuckerberg?

This column was originally published in the Washington Examiner