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An overlooked U.S. success

Research shows America still integrates immigrants more quickly and thoroughly than almost any other nation.

By Jacob L. Vigdor

President Obama recently spoke about the importance of immigration reform in El Paso, Texas. But the following week, Gallup released a poll showing that a scant 4 percent of Americans consider immigration to be our most important problem, down from 11 percent four years ago. What happened to our national immigration angst?

Clearly, the economic slump has given us other things to worry about. It has also had more direct effects on our perception of immigration problems.

This is a central conclusion of a recently released report I wrote for the Manhattan Institute. The recession brought immigration to a virtual halt. In the process, it smoothed over the differences between immigrants and natives.

The recession affected immigrants more severely than natives. This led some to leave the country and undoubtedly caused some would-be migrants to stay put. Those most likely to leave were recent arrivals, who are always the least assimilated. When they depart, and other would-be new arrivals stay home, the differences between immigrants and natives narrow, and our collective concern about immigration policy naturally declines.

Better than most

Are we being shortsighted? Will we start worrying about immigration again once the economy heats up? The report provides perspective on these questions by comparing the experiences of immigrants in the United States and 10 other advanced nations. Though many of us expect international comparisons to be unflattering to America, handling immigration turns out to be one thing we do better than most.

This conclusion stems from many indicators. Home ownership among immigrants to America exceeds that of immigrants to Italy by 20 percentage points. Employment of American immigrants exceeds that of immigrants to the Netherlands by 13 percentage points. And immigrants here are more likely to be naturalized than in many European countries.

Averages do obscure important parts of the story. While the more successful half of the immigrant population, represented most clearly by those born in Asia, has done quite well, the other half has exhibited much slower progress. As we worry about the status of Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, however, so Europeans worry about Muslim immigrants - many of them similarly illegal - from North Africa and the Middle East. Witness the 2009 Swiss ban on the construction of minarets or the high-level hand-wringing over the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. The problems of Muslim immigrants in Europe are at least as bad as those of Latino immigrants here.

Hyphenated identities

Given demographic trends, the transatlantic divide in immigrant experience is bound to grow. Fertility rates in Mexico, which a generation ago were more than twice the United States', now equal those on this side of the border. History shows that slowdowns in fertility precede slowdowns in emigration. Africa, a vastly more important source of migrants in Europe than in North America for simple reasons of geography, will be the last continent to witness the fertility declines associated with development.

Aside from demography and geography, what explains the success of American immigrants? Culture and history clearly matter. Being German or Italian invokes ethnicity and national identity simultaneously. In this country, we have long separated the two. Our hyphenated identities may be disagreeable to some, but they encapsulate a readiness to assimilate. We couple this cultural plasticity with reasonable policies, placing relatively few obstacles in the path to integration.

While America fares well in an international context, one nation consistently outperforms us. Thanks in part to its greater distance from the developing world, and in larger part to its policies, Canada stands out as the developed nation with the best record of incorporating immigrants. This is consistent in international comparisons of migrants from specific regions, from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Two facets of immigration policy help to explain Canada's success. In distributing visas, it emphasizes skills and education rather than country quotas and family reunification. As important, it permits dual citizenship and allows naturalization after only three years.

Our immigration system is not perfect. But it is, in fact, quite good. The first task of any proposal for reform should be to preserve our innate advantage in incorporating immigrants into society.