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The specter of wishful thinking haunts the immigration debate in the United States. Optimists assume that today’s immigrants must be just like the Europeans who came a hundred years ago. They look at impoverished Hispanics today and instead see Poles and Irishmen of yesteryear, who reached economic parity with the “founding stock” in just a few generations.
Though we want to believe Hispanics are on the old European path to economic assimilation, the evidence does not support our desires. This fact becomes more undeniable with each new data set collected and each new analysis performed, but prominent commentators are still seduced by wishful thinking.
Earlier this week, for example, columnist Linda Chavez, in a piece published in Viewpoints, reiterated her belief that Hispanics are just like other immigrant groups and that their economic progress leaves little to worry about. She is wrong.
First, some definitions. Hispanics born outside the U.S. are first-generation immigrants, and their children born in the U.S. constitute the second generation. The “third” generation includes all the descendants of the second generation–namely, Hispanics born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents.
The Hispanic first generation is quite poor, on average, with adult men earning little more than half the annual income earned by white natives. Though still relatively poor, second-generation men make considerable progress, increasing their average income to around 80 percent of the white average.
If we were to end the analysis here, we might conclude that Hispanics are right on track toward economic assimilation. The problem is that assimilation promptly stalls with the second generation. The Hispanic third generation makes no further progress and remains significantly poorer than white natives.
The same story is true for education. Though much better educated than their immigrant parents, the Hispanic second generation drops out of high school at more than twice the white rate and graduates from college at less than 60 percent of the white rate. The third generation does no better.
These facts are not in dispute. They can be confirmed by examining any major dataset that separates the second and third Hispanic generations. So how can some observers still be so optimistic?
Often they highlight the progress between the first and second generations without looking at the third. Other times they focus on side issues and factoids without considering the big picture.
Chavez falls into the latter category with her recent column. She tells us, for example, that Hispanics tend to be healthy, despite a lack of health insurance coverage. This is nice, but not exactly a cause for celebration.
She also says that almost half of second-generation Hispanics “go on to attend” college, though she does not mention how many actually earn four-year degrees. (It’s less than 20 percent.) She states there are twice as many third-generation Hispanic households that earn more than $75,000 as Hispanic households that earn less than $25,000. But the average Hispanic income is significantly below white natives, and one in five U.S.-born Hispanics lives in poverty, more than double the white rate.
When Congress takes up immigration reform again, it must have a clear sense of the facts and a firm grasp of the issues at hand, as should the voters and grassroots activists who will influence the debate. It is tempting to follow our hearts by insisting that Hispanic immigrants are just like other immigrant groups, but that position is now untenable. It is time to end wishful thinking and make some hardheaded decisions about immigration policy.
Jason Richwine is a National Research Initiative Fellow at AEI.
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