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Shattering Myths About Immigrants

Ruben Navarrette Jr.



DALLAS--The myth endures that immigrants from Mexico and Central America don't perform as well in the United States as the European immigrants of days gone by.

For this, it is said, the Latino immigrants have only themselves to blame. Supposedly, they make no effort to assimilate. They refuse to learn English. And they lack the ambition to excel beyond low-wage jobs where they are exploited and discriminated against.

Now a study by RAND, the nonprofit think tank based in Southern California, debunks the myth. The research suggests that there is not all that much difference between the immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande to get here and those who had to cross the Atlantic. And there is even less difference between their children and grandchildren a generation or two down the line.

"There's a widespread view among both scholars and the general public that the Latino experience has been very different than the European experience," economist James Smith, author of the study, told The Associated Press. "That view is just wrong."

By examining census data and other material going back over a century, Smith was able to measure the educational and economic progress of Latino men and their children and compare it with that of other nationalities. What he found was that many of the popular assumptions don't hold true.

"Across generations, Latinos have done just as well as the Europeans who came in the early part of this century, and in fact slightly better," Smith said.

The RAND study found that although Latino immigrants who were born in the early 1900s averaged just a fifth-grade education, their sons made it as far as the ninth grade and their grandsons graduated from high school. According to Smith, those advances were greater than those of European immigrants born in the same era. The bad news: By the third generation, the educational gains taper off.

When it comes to earnings, the news is more encouraging. Over their lifetimes, Latino immigrants born in the early 1900s earned about three-fourths as much as U.S.-born descendants of European immigrants. Their sons earned about 79 percent as much, and their grandsons nearly 83 percent as much. With every generation, the earning gap closed bit by bit, as one might expect.

And while this study focused on men, Smith claims that his research on Hispanic women shows much the same thing.

Sure, this is just one study. There may be others out there that offer assessments that are less optimistic. There are some scholars, for instance, who argue that America is headed for a rough patch because many of the immigrants it now takes in are less educated and less skilled than those of a century ago. Others sound the alarm over language, insisting that Latino immigrants who refuse to immediately learn English are destined to flounder in the United States.

Rubbish. Regardless of ethnicity or nationality or economic resources, immigrants are the same the world over. That's because a big part of what shapes their character is not the country they come from, but the fact that they leave it in the first place, risking whatever they have--including their lives--in search of a better life. Once here, they work hard in any job they can find. They instill in their children an appreciation for education and teach them the value of a dollar. And one day those children, in turn, pass on these things to theirs.

That's how it was in my family, whose American journey took it from grape fields to graduate school in three generations. Not that one should expect any of this to resonate with those Americans who remain intent on differentiating between immigrants and putting some above others.

You can't really blame them. They're in a tough spot. After all, how does a nation of immigrants reconcile the fact that so many of its people espouse views that suggest they resent immigrants? There is one way: Convince yourself that your ancestors were of a better stock than immigrants of today, and don't let the facts get in the way.

Of course, the facts at hand deal only with the progress of the immigrants of the past. The matter is settled--Latino immigrants in the 20th century matched and in some cases bettered their European counterparts. But what about the immigrants of today? My bet is that the same will be true for them.

Stay tuned.

Available online at http://postwritersgroup.com/archives/nava0527.htm

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@dallasnews.com.

Copyright 2003, Washington Post Writers Group



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Last modified: 05/29/03