A review of From Immigrants to Americans: The Rise and Fall of Fitting In, by Jacob L. Vigdor.

In December 2008, president-elect Barack Obama introduced the final two nominees to his cabinet: California Congresswoman Hilda Solis for Secretary of Labor and Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood for Secretary of Transportation. Solis identified herself as the daughter of Hispanic immigrants and spoke movingly of her family's determination to succeed. She pointed to her nomination to Obama's cabinet as the culmination of their struggle, and drove home the point by delivering a segment of her remarks in Spanish and then English.

Then it was LaHood's turn at the podium. The grandson of Lebanese Christian immigrants who settled in Peoria, LaHood notably said nothing about his family history—nor did he speak Arabic. He made no allusion whatsoever to his ethnic background or religious heritage.

These contrasting images highlight two very different ways that immigrants have made their way in America. Hispanics are one of the largest groups ever to arrive here, and have supported controversial policies in order to advance themselves socially and economically and maintain their language and culture. By contrast, Arabs are one of the smallest and—at least until recently—most obscure ethnic groups in the United States. More to the point, they have grown accustomed to pursuing their interests with discretion.

This contrast would be no great surprise to Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor, author of From Immigrants to Americans: The Rise and Fall of Fitting In. In order to get around the long-standing stalemate between immigration restrictionists and expansionists, Vigdor proposes addressing the issue from a different angle and devising public policies that encourage "fitting in," as he puts it. Toward this end, he examines how various immigrant groups today are assimilating and compares their trajectories with those of immigrants who arrived here earlier in our history.

Relying on 150 years of census data, Vigdor presents some fascinating empirical findings. Unfortunately, he fails to provide a satisfactory definition of assimilation. In his words,

[a]ssimilation is fundamentally the erosion of critical differences between groups, and changes in the status of anygroup can be conducive to the goal…. Commonality of language, for example, is a justifiable societal goal, but there is not necessarily a rule for which language should be set forward as the standard. (My emphasis.)


Paul Samuelson's renowned economics textbook used to assert that labor could just as plausibly hire capital as the reverse, and I have no doubt that Vigdor's formalistic perspective on assimilation similarly derives from his training in the profession. In any event, as Milton Friedman taught, it is not the plausibility of economists' assumptions that matter, but their explanatory power. On this score as well, Vigdor proves to be disappointing.

His definition of assimilation does have the virtue of helping him side-step charges of Anglo insensitivity from his colleagues in academia. But it definitely won't play in Peoria, as Ray LaHood could undoubtedly attest. And this in turn speaks to the limitations of Vigdor's perspective on immigration policy and politics. As befits an economist, he regards himself as eminently qualified to address the former, yet fails to understand the latter.

It is telling that Vigdor has nothing whatsoever to say about the political assimilation of immigrants, focusing instead on assimilation as a phenomenon among individuals. As he puts it, "[a]ssimilation is a process whereby an individual belonging to a particular social group becomes more similar to members of other groups over time." But assimilation is also a process whereby groups adjust their expectations and claims against one another as well as against the wider society. This of course is the essence of politics, about which Vigdor's methodological individualism leaves him virtually nothing to say.

Another limitation of his account is the unexamined assumption that assimilation is necessarily benign and functional. Missing from his analysis is any hint, despite abundant evidence, that specific aspects of assimilation can be dysfunctional for immigrants as well as their host society—for example, when immigrant youth adapt to ghetto or gang culture in our nation's cities. Similarly, he ignores evidence that as Hispanic immigrants and their children have assimilated to American culture, their diet and eating habits have changed, resulting in obesity and diabetes of almost epidemic proportions.

Without any explanation or justification, Vigdor embraces a straight-line notion of assimilation, assuming that immigrants progressively adapt to life in America until eventually they resemble the norm. Yet this view is contradicted by much of our history: assimilation has often been a back-and-forth process in which immigrants have adapted to America by defining themselves apart from or even in opposition to it. For example, foreign-language newspapers, typically preoccupied with events back home, have nevertheless helped to integrate immigrant groups into the broader society. Arguably, the same can be said of today's Spanish-language media.

Despite the stigma associated in the popular mind with "hyphenated identities," it was as Italian-Americans, for example, that peasants from the villages of the Mezzogiorno and Sicily came gradually to think of themselves as citizens of the United States. Today, it is as Mexican-Americans or Hispanic-Americans—rarely just as Americans—that immigrants from across our southern border get drawn into the mainstream. Even more telling is how some immigrant parents define their families' goals in opposition to our youth culture, in order to ensure that their children assimilate to the achievement-oriented values of America's upper-middle class.

As anyone familiar with the struggles of such immigrant parents well understands, assimilation can be a contentious, even conflictual process. Not merely within the private life of families, but in public, between immigrants and non-immigrants, and—a point that is typically overlooked—among various immigrant groups jostling for recognition, resources, and political power. Yet Vigdor's analysis completely ignores this dynamic aspect of assimilation.

Consider now his findings on five different ways of "fitting in" for which he was able to assemble and analyze historical data: interpersonally (as indicated by intermarriage), officially (as gauged by naturalization rates), residentially, linguistically, and finally, economically. Vigdor never actually ranks these various dimensions, though economic assimilation is clearly his greatest concern.

He reports that intermarriage between immigrants and non-immigrants today is rare. In 2007, for example, only 14% of foreign-born males and 16% of foreign-born females were married to native-born spouses. Vigdor concludes that "there has been no dramatic change in the propensity of immigrants to intermarry over the past century or more." Similarly, he reports that "there has been little change in the overall rates of naturalization over the past century." Noting that over this period we have made it more difficult to naturalize, he concludes that official policy may have relatively little impact on the decisions immigrants make about this aspect of assimilation.

Residentially, today's immigrants appear to be less isolated upon arrival than their counterparts a hundred years ago, but also less likely to integrate over time. Likewise, today's immigrants on average arrive with more English than their predecessors, but then appear to make less linguistic progress than earlier immigrants did. Yet these data are fraught with problems. For example, Vigdor points out that evidence on immigrant language skills used to be based on the subjective judgments of census takers, and today rely on the self-reporting of immigrants themselves.

When it comes to economic assimilation, however, Vigdor's data are more solid and his findings more conclusive. As he summarizes, "Over the course of American history, the occupational standing of immigrants has improved in an absolute sense but declined in a relative sense." In 1910, for instance, immigrants typically worked in higher-paid occupations than their native-born counterparts. How could this be? Well, about 70% of native-born workers lived in rural areas or small towns, while immigrants tended to congregate in the industrializing cities where job opportunities were much greater. As Vigdor notes, "Even the lowest-skilled immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe enjoyed an occupational advantage over the average native."

A century later, the situation is more complicated. Immigrants today arrive on average with higher occupational skill levels than their predecessors. Yet American workers have registered even greater gains. He concludes: "We have established that immigrants of the early twenty-first century, while better off than their predecessors in an absolute sense, have as a group fallen behind the native-born in terms of occupational standing."

But as he is at pains to point out, today's averages mask a more differentiated influx than America witnessed in its past. Although highly skilled immigrants, from Asia for example, arrive here with skill levels well above the average for natives and then go on to do well, many unskilled immigrants, especially from Mexico and Central America, arrive with skill levels well below the native average. As Vigdor puts it, "immigrants from East and South Asia in particular [are] outpacing the native-born while immigrants from Mexico and Central America lag the furthest behind."

As for the children of immigrants, he presents data suggesting that a century ago their parents' advantages over native-born workers were passed on to their offspring, who outperformed their native-born peers. Today, on average the adult children of immigrants appear to have a similar occupational advantage relative to their native-born counterparts. But again, such averages are misleading, masking how the offspring of Korean and Vietnamese immigrants outpace their native-born peers while the adult children of Mexican immigrants lag behind.

These are complicated findings, whose implications are hardly self-evident. Unfortunately, Vigdor doesn't shed much light on them. He is clearly most concerned with the relatively poor economic assimilation of unskilled Hispanic immigrants. Yet he never adequately explains why he is so concerned. It is striking, for example, that as an economist he does not argue that sustained high levels of unskilled immigration might be harmful to our economy—retarding technological innovation, for example.

At various points he does suggest that the poor assimilation of unskilled Hispanic immigrants is a political problem. Yet despite his evident preoccupation with their economic assimilation, he readily acknowledges that "for many concerned citizens, cultural considerations [i.e., English language acquisition] weigh much more heavily than economic ones."

Perhaps Vigdor is concerned that their relatively poor economic progress might lead to discontent among unskilled Hispanic immigrants and their children. Yet they are presumably not comparing their progress today with that of Italian immigrants over the past century. More likely they would be comparing their situation with that of their contemporaries, particularly highly successful immigrants from Asia and elsewhere. But Vigdor offers no evidence for this.

More broadly, the critical question is not simply the relative economic progress of particular immigrant groups. Rather, it is how they interpret their experience. Whom do they compare themselves to, and what criteria do they invoke? As the contrasting presentations of Hilda Solis and Ray LaHood remind us, different groups answer these questions in different ways. Moreover, such matters are fundamentally political questions that Vigdor pays no attention to, presumably because as an economist he regards notions of justice as beyond the scope of his analysis. Fair enough. But then he should provide us with a thorough economic analysis of why we should be concerned about this influx of unskilled Hispanic immigrants. Unfortunately, From Immigrants to Americans fails to do this, either.