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Immigration: Assimilation and the measure of an American

Immigration reform, making its way through Congress, and the Boston Marathon bombings – allegedly committed by two Chechen immigrants – has raised heated debate about how we measure the assimilation of newcomers civically, culturally, economically, and even patriotically. 

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To get at this more important marker of assimilation, Alba says, you need to find out how immigrants feel. Which is what the Pew Research Center has tried to do in a number of recent studies.

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  • Graphic Assimilation Index
    (Source: Jacob Vigdor, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research/Graphic: Rich Clabaugh, Staff)

Questioning a 'patriotism gap'

In a survey report released earlier this year on second-generation immigrants, who many scholars say are the true markers of a family's assimilation or lack thereof, Pew found that the children of immigrants are, in general, doing better economically than their parents, are more likely to marry and have friends outside their ethnic groups, and are twice as likely to say they consider themselves to be a "typical American." (Six in 10 Hispanic and Asian-American second-generation immigrants respond this way.)

Meanwhile, second-generation Hispanics and Asian-Americans "place more importance than does the general public on hard work and career success," the Pew research found; they and their parents are more likely than the native-born population – and even more likely than the older adult children of European immigrants from the turn of the last century – to feel optimistic about the direction of the country. More than 80 percent of second-generation Hispanics and Asian-Americans say they can speak English "very well"; 10 percent say they can speak it "well."

"There is a lot of that very positive data in that second generation report," says Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. "When you look at values, sense of belonging, things are unfolding the way that a society that opens its arms to immigrants would want it to unfold. Is everything perfect? Of course not. But there is a lot of positive news in that data."

There are other reports about immigrants' feelings, however, that come to a different conclusion. A week before the Boston Marathon bombings, the Hudson Institute, which generally researches conservative issues, released a report claiming a "patriotism gap" between the foreign- and native-born.

Citing a new quantitative analysis of Harris Interactive survey data, the Hudson Institute's researchers determined that native-born citizens are, by 21 percentage points (65 percent to 44 percent), more likely than naturalized immigrants to view America as "better" than other countries rather than "no better, no worse." When given a choice, the native born are more likely to describe themselves as "American" rather than "citizen of the world"; 67 percent of the native born believe the US Constitution is a higher legal authority for Americans than international law, as compared with 37 percent of naturalized immigrants.

These statistics led the researchers to conclude that "America's patriotic assimilation system is broken."

A number of conservative columnists jumped on this finding, seeing proof in news reports that at least one of the Tsarnaev brothers, accused of the Marathon bombings, had felt alienated in and angry at the US.

All of which gets at a bigger issue when it comes to analyzing cultural integration: Who gets to describe the values of a "typical American?"

As Alba points out, a "typical American" changes region to region, family to family. The meaning also changes based on socioeconomic surroundings.

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