American dream falters
Second generation immigrants' financial progress slows.
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The nationality diversity of immigrants – both illegal and legal – today is far different from in decades past. In the 1960s, Europe and Canada accounted for half the newcomers to the US. Now, they make up less than 20 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, the percentage of immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia has jumped from about 50 percent in the 1960s to nearly 75 percent.
The educational mix of immigrants has remained relatively constant. The proportion of those with advanced degrees, at 12 percent, and those with a high school degree or less, at 52 percent, is about the same today as it was before 1970, according to Pew. .
However, the educational differences between immigrants from different regions of the world is "stark," in Pew's terminology. Half of Asian immigrants have at least a bachelor's degree. Half of Latin American immigrants haven't finished high school.
Not surprisingly, education plays a large role in the lives of many immigrants who have done well.
Kent Lee is a senior research scientist at a medical device technology firm in Minneapolis. His father, who immigrated to the US from Taiwan in 1954, was the first person in his family to attend college. His mother came to the US in 1972 as a graduate student.
Mr. Lee remembers a constant focus on education from his parents. In the end, he and his two sisters all had the chance to attend college and graduate schools.
"It all depends on what base you come from," Lee says. "If you come from a family with an emphasis on good education, you can do well."
Overall, however, second-generation immigrants are not doing quite as well as they used to. Their income lead over nonimmigrant workers has shrunk, from 14.6 percent in 1970 to 6.3 percent today.
In part this is because their parents aren't doing as well, either. In 1970, the relative wages of first-generation immigrants were slightly higher than those of nonimmigrants. By 2000, their wages had fallen to 19.7 percent below those of nonimmigrants, according to Pew.
If this decline continues apace, wages of second-generation immigrants will fall below nonimmigrant pay by 2030.
"If low wages persist into the second and subsequent generations for substantial numbers of immigrants, economic hardship may persist beyond the first generation and assimilation into American society may become more difficult," says the Pew report on immigrants and economic mobility.
Not that assimilation is a snap now. After all, it's a process that involves more than money.
Take Wade Tsai, who, as a small boy, immigrated to the US from Taiwan with his parents in the late 1970s. His parents sweated when he was young, working at a series of restaurants, among other jobs, to ensure that Mr. Tsai and his sister could go to college.
But for all the years they have spent in the US, the parents remain tied to old tradition and culture. Tsai's mother still cannot speak English well, despite the fact that she was a cashier for many years. Neither she nor her husband was much help for their children when it came to adapting to American ways.
Today, Tsai is an engineering manager who lives in Seattle. He says that he has had to learn things that people who grew up in the US seem to know from birth, such as how to interact and the toughness of competition in business.
"You just kind of learn it as you go," he says. "So that's the most challenging part about being the second generation, because you have this disconnect between the old-school culture you've emigrated from, and the one you've come to."
• Elizabeth Armstrong Moore contributed from Portland, Ore.