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Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States

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Publication Date: October 2009

Publisher(s): Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Center for Civic Innovation

Author(s): Jacob Vigdor

Series: CR 59

Topic: Population and demographics (Immigration and immigration policy)

Keywords: immigration; assimilation

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


The year 2007 marked an economic turning point in the United States. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the nation's economic output peaked late in the year and then began to contract. This development affected immigration in two important ways: immigrants began arriving in fewer numbers than they have since the 1960s; and those immigrants who not only arrived but stayed fell further behind the native-born population economically. Economic assimilation declined even among immigrants who arrived more than a decade ago, indicating that differences between that cohort and the native-born population widened.

This report, the second in an ongoing series, takes advantage of newly released U.S. Census Bureau data from 2007 to measure changes in an index describing the state of economic, civic, and cultural assimilation of immigrants to the United States. It also explores in detail two of the factors used to compute the index: immigrants English-language ability and naturalization rates, both of which have been affected by the reduced inflow and increased outflow of recent immigrants. Because legal adult immigrants who have been here less than five years cannot become citizens and are unlikely to have mastered English in so short a period, the economic downturn is having an effect on all three assimilation indexes: economic, of course; but also cultural assimilation, of which English skills are an important component; and civic assimilation, of which citizenship is an important component.

Ironically, the effect of the reduction in the numbers of immigrants arriving and staying has been to offset the impact on the assimilation index of gradually declining levels of English skills upon arrival and afterward as well as lower rates of naturalization. The reason for this is that recent arrivals differ most from natives, and thus their absence raises the collective assimilation index values of immigrants who have been here longer.

The Manhattan Institute introduced its first summary measures of immigrant assimilation in the United States in 2008. Civic Report No. 53, Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States, presented a series of index measures describing the degree of similarity between foreign- and native-born residents of the United States between 1900 and 2006. The index rises only when the foreign-born population becomes less distinct from the native-born. In net terms, there has been no change in the assimilation index between 2006 and 2007. The composite measure, which considers all three categories of indicators economic, cultural, and civic remained at the same level. None of those three separately showed any variation from 2006 to 2007.