January 17, 2019 1:15PM

New Immigrants Are More Culturally Different than They Used to Be

Native‐​born American concerns about immigration are primarily about how immigration will affect the culture of the country as a whole and, to a lesser extent, how the newcomers will affect the economy. One’s personal economic situation is not a major factor. It’s reasonable to assume that the degree of cultural difference between native‐​born Americans and new immigrants affects the degree of cultural concern. Thus, Americans would likely be less concerned over immigrants from Canada or Singapore than they would be over immigrants from Egypt or Azerbaijan. 

A large team of psychologists recently created an index of the cultural distance of people from numerous countries around the world relative to the United States. The index is constructed from responses to the World Values Survey as well as linguistic and geographical distances. Their index includes numerous different psychological facts such as individualism, power distance, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation, indulgence, harmony, mastery, embeddedness, hierarchy, egalitarian, autonomy, tolerance for deviant behavior, norm enforcement, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, creativity, altruism, and obedience. These are all explained in more detail in the paper.

Their paper has an index where lower numbers indicate a culture more similar to that of the United States while a higher number indicates a culture more distant from that of the United States. As some extreme examples, Canada’s cultural distance score is 0.025 and Egypt’s is 0.24. 

Using the cultural distance index, I calculated the cultural distance of the stock of immigrants in the United States in 2015 from native‐​born Americans. I then compared the cultural distance of the stock to the cultural distance of the flow of immigrants who arrived in 2012–2015. The immigration figures come from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the U.S. Census Bureau. If the stock of immigrants in 2015 was more culturally similar to native‐​born Americans than the flow, then the recent flow is more culturally distinct. If the stock of immigrants in 2015 was more culturally different from native‐​born Americans than the flow, then the recent flow is less culturally distinct. 

Table 1 shows the results. The immigrant flow in 2012–2015 is more culturally different from native‐​born Americans than the stock of immigrants was in 2015. In other words, today’s newest immigrants are more different than those from the relatively recent past. Relative to the stock, the cultural distinctiveness of the flow in 2012–2015 was greater by about one‐​fourth of a standard deviation. In other words, the stock of American immigrants in 2015 was very culturally similar to people from Trinidad and Tobago (0.099) while the flow of new immigrants who arrived from 2012–2015 more similar to Romanians (0.11).

Table 1

Cultural Distance of Immigrants Relative to Native‐​Born Americans

Cultural Distance
Immigrant Stock 0.10
Immigrant Flow 0.11

Sources: WEIRD Index, ASEC, and author’s calculations.

There are a few problems with my above calculations. First, those who choose to move here are likely more similar to Americans than those who do not. There is obviously some difference in cultural values inside of a country as the average person does not choose to emigrate to the United States. Second, American immigration laws likely select immigrants with similar cultural values through various means such as favoring the family members of Americans and those hired by American firms. It’s reasonable to assume that foreigners who marry Americans and who are hired by American firms are more culturally similar than the average person from those countries. Third, the cultural distance index only covers about two‐​thirds of the immigrant population in the United States. It is possible that countries not on the list could shift the score significantly in either direction.

New immigrants to the United States are more culturally different than those of the past, but not by much. This increase in the cultural difference of new immigrants could have had an outsized impact on Trump voters in 2016, but immigration overall is more popular with Americans than it used to be.