Immigration

New Study Demolishes 3 Pernicious Myths About First-Generation Immigrants In America

CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Immigrants and advocates hold a rally in Washington, D.C. in October 2013

The newest arrivals in America are assimilating faster into the society than previous generations, and their experiences don’t fit into the most common stereotypes leveled against them, according to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report published this week.

Culling data from the 41 million foreign-born immigrants in the country — a population that includes the 11.3 million undocumented immigrant population — the study authors write in their 400-page report that integration into American society “may make immigrants and their children better off and in a better position to fully contribute to their communities.”

“They’re integrating as well as, or even faster, than immigrants who came from Europe in the last century,” lead author and Harvard University sociology professor Dr. Mary Waters told ThinkProgress in a phone interview this week. “In that way, I think it should be reassuring to Americans who are often worried that somehow the immigrants are not learning English, are not progressing well, or becoming full Americans. What we find overall — there’s a lot of details and caveats — but overall, the immigrants are rapidly assimilating into American society.”

Water noted that the study was intended to be “factual and independent of politics.” Even so, her study’s findings do repudiate some of the existing myths about the impact that immigrants have on American society, and could challenge some of the recent xenophobic rhetoric pushed by 2016 Republican presidential candidates with anti-immigrant positions.

Here are the main takeaways from the study that help debunk some persistent misconceptions about immigrants:

Immigrants are healthier than native-born Americans

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Compared with native-born Americans, foreign-born immigrants are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and cancers, have fewer chronic health conditions, have lower infant mortality rates, have lower rates of obesity, and have longer life expectancy rates, among other issues. They’re also less likely to suffer from depression and abuse alcohol, the report found.

That finding refutes the idea that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to enter our borders because they may pose some kind of health risk. Arguing that immigrants have diseases has long been a fearmongering tactic employed to scare people into believing that immigrants could spread infectious diseases and wreck havoc for Americans.

When thousands of unaccompanied Latin American children and families crossed the border last year, numerous lawmakers refused to grant them temporary refuge, claiming that the immigrants may have “known diseases and gang affiliations” and that “you don’t ship people that are ill and contagious all over the country. At the time, other lawmakers claimed that Central American immigrants could have tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox, and even the Ebola virus (a predominantly West African disease). In spite of the claims, many of those immigrants have already been vaccinated in their countries, which actually have higher vaccination rates than the United States.

Allowing immigrants to join the U.S. health care system could make them even healthier. But some of them are finding themselves shut out of the Affordable Care Act, even if they’re in the country legally. It’s possible that legal U.S. residents and citizens were among the “overwhelming majority” of the more than 400,000 legal immigrants who lost their insurance coverage earlier this year after getting flagged for citizenship and immigration issues.

As a previous Journal of General Internal Medicine study found, undocumented immigrants are not a drain on the health care system, instead providing a surplus of $35.1 billion to the Medicare Trust Fund between 2000 and 2011.

Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans

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First-generation immigrants are incarcerated at one-fourth the rate for the native-born. The new study found that it’s likely that the crime rates among the second and third generations catch up to the crime rates for the native-born population, which the authors point out could be “an unwelcome aspect of integration.”

That finding helps challenge GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s insinuation that immigrants are rapists, drug dealers, and criminals. A growing number of Republican lawmakers have pointed to individual crimes committed by immigrants to double down on calls to secure the border and to get rid of so-called “sanctuary cities,” places where local law enforcement officials can refuse to turn over immigrants to federal immigration officials. But turning up the heat on criminal immigrants actually runs counter to the truth about the immigrant population as a whole.

The report backs up at least two other studies that came to similar conclusions. The Immigration Policy Council recently released a report finding that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than the native-born population, with the violent crime rate dropping 48 percent during the period of time when the foreign-born share of the U.S. population grew from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent. And a 2013 Criminology and Delinquency study found that second-generation immigrants catch up to native-born Whites when it comes to criminal offenses, but that first-generation commit crime at a lower rate.

Immigrants are learning English faster than ever

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The study found that 85 percent of the foreign-born population speaks a language other than English at home, with about 62 percent of all immigrants speaking Spanish. At least half of the immigrant population speaks English “very well” or “well,” and less than 10 percent said they speak English “not at all.”

Compared with their predecessors, immigrants are losing their ancestors’ languages at around the same rates as their historical predecessors, “with English monolingualism usually occurring within three generations,” the report found.

But even with the advancement of English integration throughout the generations, the report found that there are various barriers to English proficiency, like lack of funding from federal and state agencies to support adult English-language classes or access by low-skilled, poorly educated, residentally segregated, and undocumented immigrant populations.

“The troubling issue is that federal and state support for adult English-language classes has declined in the last decade,” Waters said. “So people who want to learn English don’t necessarily have access to that.”

America does not have an official language, though many states have already passed or are trying to pass legislation to make their official state language English, sometimes as part of an anti-immigrant push to limit immigrants into their localities. Most recently, a Pennsylvania lawmaker turned off the microphone for a Latina colleague who objected to his English-only bill.

Even GOP candidates have hedged right on advocating for English-only legislation. Trump criticized former Florida Jeb Bush (R) for not exclusively speaking English on the campaign trail. And Carly Fiorina indicated that “English is the official language of the United States.”

“There’s no need for English-only legislation,” Waters stated, noting that the switch to English in the second generation is “overwhelming,” while the switch in the third generation is generally complete. “It seems to be happening on its own. If people wanted to support English-language use, then perhaps increasing federal and state support would be the way to go.”