Do Immigrants ‘Drain’ Society?

A new report suggests the question should not be how to keep newcomers from diluting America but how to keep America from diluting the newcomers

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A woman takes the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the district office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on January 28, 2013 in Newark, N.J.

Two of the most common canards about immigrant families are that they don’t really want to become American and that they’re a drag on the rest of us. But a fascinating new Pew report gives lie to both fears. In the process, it reminds us why immigration matters.

The study shows first of all that Americanization is proceeding as inevitably now as during previous great waves of migration. Yes, today’s immigrants are Hispanic and Asian rather than European. But that hasn’t made a difference. Today’s 20 million adult sons and daughters of immigrants have learned English, advanced economically, and intermarried far more than their parents did and no more slowly than the Italians or Irish or Poles did a century ago. Nearly six in ten — almost double the percentage of their parents — consider themselves “typical Americans.”

(MORE: Why Higher Education Must Be Part of Immigration Reform)

As for whether immigrant families are a drag on society, the facts are clear. Second-generation Americans—the children of immigrants—  are not just doing better than their parents. Their educational attainment and income are actually above the national median. They are contributors. If anything, as other research has shown, it is America that can be harmful to immigrant families: obesity and criminality increase from the first to the second generation.

So the question should not be how to keep newcomers from diluting America but how to keep America from diluting the newcomers. This presents a challenge to both native-born Americans and today’s immigrants.

(MORE: TIME Cover Story: Immigrant Son)

The Pew report notes that Americans who are of foreign birth or parentage, so-called “immigrant stock,” will constitute a record 37% of the population by 2050. This frightens many white Americans to the core, especially those who are older and live in communities only recently touched by immigration. But for today’s “immigrant stock,” this moment creates an opportunity. Immigrants of earlier centuries proved that every kind of European could become simply white; today’s immigrants prove that every kind of human can become simply American. But this means encouraging them to strive not only for their own families but also for the nation, through service and civic participation. To put it more sharply: if tens of millions of brown and yellow Americans do not become citizens in their hearts and acts, as well as in their papers, then this nation’s greatness will be difficult to sustain.

Which raises two cautionary points. The Pew report does not specifically examine the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America today, so many of whom live in the shadows without access to civic life. Getting them on a pathway to citizenship, so they and their children can become full participants in the economy and society, is not just compassionate; it’s strategically imperative.

MORE: TIME Cover Story: Not Legal, Not Leaving

Nor does the report address the 30-year national trends of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility for all Americans. Immigrants and their offspring may still be powerhouses of ambition and energy. But the 16 million children of immigrants today who are not yet adults will enter a more class-stratified society than did their older second-generation counterparts (like me).

Whether we are native-born or newcomer, then, our task now is to apply an immigrant’s ingenuity, optimism, and perseverance to the systematic expansion of opportunity in America. To do that, as history shows and recent studies confirm, it’ll help to have more immigrants around.

(MORE: Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word ‘Illegal’)