May 14, 2018 5:37PM

Central Americans Assimilate Very Well

On Friday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly justified the administration’s new policy of separating children from parents fleeing violence in Central America by explaining:

They're not MS-13. . . . But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English; obviously that's a big thing. ... They don't integrate well; they don’t have skills.

His comments mix true facts—that Central American immigrants aren’t criminals, that they tend to have less education, that they often speak less English—with several inaccuracies—that they can’t fit into modern society, that they don’t have skills that the United States can employ, and ultimately that they don’t assimilate or can’t integrate well.

First Generation Central American Immigrants Assimilate

Kelly is correct that the vast majority of Central American immigrants do not speak English when they arrive in the United States. In 2016, according to data from the American Community Survey, 82 percent of Central American immigrant adults over the age of 25 who arrived that year spoke English “not well” or “not at all,” but as Figure 1 shows, length of residence does appear to result in greater language acquisition, with nearly three quarters knowing English after three decades or more in the United States.

Their rapid integration into the labor market belies their supposed lack of skills and inability to adapt to a modern economy. With less than a year in the United States, already nearly half of Central American adults had found employment in 2016. As Figure 2 indicates, employment rates increase with the length of residence in the United States. Those with more than five years in the United States had an employment rate over 70 percent, more than 10 percentage points higher than the rate for all U.S. adults.

Naturally, this labor market integration eventually raises immigrants out of poverty. As Figure 3 shows, poverty among Central American adult immigrants who have lived in the United States in 2016 drops substantially, and those with 30 or more years experience in the United States had a lower poverty rate in 2016 than all U.S. adults.

It is possible that the better outcomes for immigrants who have lived in the United States longer were caused by better starting points, rather than by assimilation. I used the 1-year sample from 2006 to compare to 2016 to verify that residence is driving these trends, not wealthier and more employable immigrants in prior waves. For example, 78 percent of Central American immigrant adults who arrived from 2002 to 2006 spoke English “not well” or “not at all” in 2006. In 2016, only 63 percent of those who arrived during those years did. In 2006, just 60 percent of immigrant adults who arrived that year were employed. 73 percent of them were in 2016.

Descendants of Central American Immigrants Assimilate

Perhaps Kelly meant that the children and grandchildren of Central American immigrants don’t assimilate well. Unfortunately, the American Community Survey doesn’t make it easy to identify people as the children of Central Americans once they reach adulthood. However, they do ask about a person’s ancestry, and since most Americans with Central American ancestry are the children of immigrants, this category allows us to understand the trends on the intergenerational assimilation of Central Americans. Ancestry is a better measure than ethnicity, which people often abandon after one or two generations.

English language assimilation continues even faster into the second generation. Figure 4 highlights the impressive difference between first-generation immigrants with Central American ancestry and their descendants born in the United States (i.e. “natives”). 91 percent of Americans with Central American ancestry speak English “very well” with another 6 percent speaking it “well”. Only 3 percent speak it poorly or not at all. This compares with 49 percent in the first generation.

The descendants of Central American immigrants also make significant strides in educational attainment. Kelly is right that Central American immigrants have little formal schooling—half had dropped out of high school, and just eight percent had a college degree in 2016. Adults with Central American ancestry who were born in the United States had the exact same level of educational attainment as all other natives—30 percent had a college degree, and only 10 percent dropped out of high school.

Central American native-born adults have no fall-off in terms of finding jobs either. In 2016, 78 percent of them were employed—a higher rate than Central American immigrant adults and nearly 20 percentage points higher than all other adults born in the United States.

Nearly 28 percent of native-born children with Central American ancestry were in poverty in 2016, but as Figure 7 shows, the percentage drops sharply among adults to the same or lower level than other U.S.-born Americans. Fully 90 percent of Americans with Central American ancestry over the age of 36 were not in poverty.

Other measures of assimilation—like patriotism—are difficult to capture in the American Community Survey data. But to the extent that enlisting in the military reflects a love for country, American adults with Central American ancestry were more than twice as likely to be an active duty member of the military than other U.S.-born American adults, as Figure 8 shows.

How to Improve Assimilation: Give Legal Status

The level of assimilation that Central American immigrants and their children achieve is remarkable given that nearly half of all Central American immigrants are in the United States without formal legal status. This means that they cannot find legal employment, that the law requires employers to discriminate against them, that they cannot ever naturalize and become citizens, that they cannot receive in-state tuition and other benefits available to legal immigrants in many states, that they have no certainty about their future and could be forcibly removed at any time.

In other words, integration of Central American immigrants is occurring despite the best efforts of the United States government to prevent it. If Kelly is concerned that the rate of assimilation is still not quick enough, he should argue for legalizing immigration to the United States for workers without a college degree and for giving a pathway to citizenship to those who have lived in the United States for several years. These measures would incentivize better integration than criminally prosecuting parents and separating them from their children.

Obviously, Kelly’s concerns—even if true—have no bearing on the reasonability of forcibly taking children away from their parents. But at a minimum, we can conclude that Kelly’s concerns about assimilation and integration are wildly overblown. Central Americans assimilate quite well.