Vol. 16 No. 12 (December, 2006) pp.989-993
IMMIGRANT AMERICA: A PORTRAIT, by Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 496pp. Hardcover. $55.00/£35.95. ISBN: 9780520242838. Paper $21.95/£13.95. ISBN: 9780520250419.
Reviewed by Kevin R. Johnson, School of Law, University of California, Davis. Email: krjohnson [at] ucdavis.edu.
Although it perhaps is cliché for a review to characterize a book in this way, IMMIGRANT AMERICA: A PORTRAIT truly is a “must read” for any serious student of immigration law and policy. This volume is chock full of facts and information about immigration based on Census 2000, a wealth of current research studies on immigrants, and insightful analysis by two most influential sociologists. The third edition is substantially revised, expanded, and updated from the second edition published a decade ago. Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut have done an excellent job to ensure that the book is as up-to-date and complete as possible.
At a most fundamental level, IMMIGRANT AMERICA dismantles popular stereotypes about immigrants to the United States, revealing just how complex a social phenomenon immigration in fact is and just how diverse the immigrant communities in this country are. If nothing else, the book unquestionably proves that immigration and immigrants are far from one-dimensional and that claims to the contrary by both pro- and anti-immigrant advocates are misguided.
The first chapter begins by telling nine stories that challenge the popular stereotype that all immigrants are poor, young, and uneducated Mexicans. The reader learns about, among others, a Cuban businessman, Indian medical school professor, Mexican auto repair shop owner, Filipino nurse (previously a doctor in his homeland), Haitian hospital worker, and a superstar Taiwanese medical student. Besides humanizing immigrants, this introduction highlights the richness of the immigrant experience and the heterogeneity of the US immigrant community.
Chapter 2 offers information about contemporary immigrants and their motivation for coming to this country. Although “many Americans believe that . . . immigrants . . . are uniformly poor and uneducated” (p.13), IMMIGRANT AMERICA unquestionably demonstrates that this simply is not true. “Contemporary immigration features a bewildering variety of origins, return patterns, and modes of adaptation to American society. Never before has the United States received immigrants from so many countries, from such different social and economic backgrounds, and for so many reasons” (p.13). The chapter summarizes the different reasons, ways of immigrating under US immigration laws, and employment patterns of migrants to the United States.
Chapter 3 examines trends of immigrant settlement and mobility. Portes and Rumbaut contend that a number of factors besides wage differentials [*990] influence immigration decisions. Many of the world’s poorest countries – some nations in Africa come to mind – send few immigrants to the United States. Family and friends in this country, class, and geographic proximity to the United States play important roles in the decision to migrate. This chapter further provides data on settlement patterns. Paradoxically, migrants tend to be concentrated in a few areas but, at the same time, are spread out among all fifty states. Census 2000 reported a foreign-born population of more than 31 million people in the United States, with California the home of 30 percent of them; New York and Texas were next on the list of receiving states (p.43). Different groups tend to settle in different states and localities. For example, more than 40 percent of immigrants from Mexico, which contributes almost 30 percent of all lawful immigrants, reside in California, while roughly 60 percent of the nearly 700,000 Dominicans have settled in New York (p.46). Although immigrants tend to be concentrated in cities, rural communities, including in the South and Midwest, have seen enclaves emerge in response to labor demands. Unlike some restrictionists, however, Portes and Rumbaut are not alarmed by these distribution trends; enclaves can provide much-needed support to new arrivals and members of the second-generation seeking to adapt to American social life.
Chapter 4 discusses the occupational and economic experiences of immigrants in the United States and provides data on education, labor force participation, occupational status, and income. Nearly a quarter of immigrants are college graduates, a figure which is almost identical to that for the native-born population. Education rates, however, vary greatly by nationality, with, for example, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cuban immigrants who came in early waves having higher indicia of academic performance than persons of Mexican ancestry (p.76). In 2000, 61 percent of the foreign-born population in the United States participated in the labor force, a figure slightly below the national average. There again is variation among immigrants from different countries, with Laotian and Cambodian rates below 60 percent. Employment visas brought a little more than 3 percent of Mexican immigrants to the United States, while family visas brought a whopping 63 percent. Compare these numbers with immigrants from India, with nearly 60 percent entering on employment visas and nearly 38 percent on family visas (p.81). Incomes vary widely too, with Mexico, Central American, and Caribbean immigrants below average. The initial reception of immigrants in the United States, as measured by such things as eligibility for public benefits – for example, refugees are eligible while undocumented immigrants generally are not – affects the ease of economic adaptation.
Chapter 5 discusses identity, citizenship, and political participation. Portes and Rumbaut address Samuel Huntington’s (2004) claim that Hispanic immigrants are undermining the national identity of the United States (pp.117-118). Unlike past immigrant generations, transnational identities are common among immigrants today, in large part [*991] because of the ease of travel and frequent exchange of goods and services between nations. But even immigrants with transnational identities assimilate and develop deep affinities and loyalties to the United States. For that reason, Portes and Rumbaut contend that restrictionist fears of a separatist movement among Mexican-Americans are greatly exaggerated (p.139). As with other characteristics of the immigrant cohort, rates of naturalization, which have changed significantly in recent years, vary by nation of origin. Immigrants from Canada and Mexico, for example, naturalize at below average rates, while immigrants from Taiwan and the former Soviet Union are above average (p.145). A fascinating discussion of the history of Mexican-American (pp.148-153) and Cuban American politics (pp.153-157) reveals that, despite differences, their group experiences share telling similarities: (1) both groups mobilized in reaction to discriminatory events; and (2) mobilizations along ethnic lines to this point have generally trumped class concerns (p.157).
Chapter 6 considers immigration, mental health, and the acculturation of immigrants into US society. Feelings of alienation and isolation have been common, both among Europeans of the early twentieth century and contemporary immigrants. Ultimately, social class plays a pivotal role in psychological adjustment. However, assimilation is not all good. For example, despite class improvements, Mexican immigrant women have one-fifth the rate of alcohol abuse and dependence of US born women of Mexican ancestry; alcohol problems thus increased for this group with time in the United States (p.190). “Among Latin American immigrants, the least educated groups had the lowest incarceration rates: Salvadorans and Guatemalans . . . and Mexicans” (p.195). Unfortunately, however, Americanization – or downward assimilation – has meant greater involvement with the criminal justice system among the second generation.
Restrictionists often complain vehemently that immigrants fail to learn English and are not committed to obtaining an education. Chapter 7 reviews the voluminous literature on English language acquisition in the United States. The data make crystal clear that English is far from becoming any less dominant. Census data show that more than 95 percent of the residents in one-half of all counties are English monolinguals, and that a vast majority of the population, more than 215 million, speak only English (p.219). Nearly two-thirds of children immigrants ultimately learn English. (p.224). IMMIGRANT AMERICA reviews the research literature and finds that (1) “The vast majority of first-generation immigrants who come to the United States as children speak English well;” (2) “Bilingualism is most common among second-generation children who grow up in immigrant households and speak a foreign language at home but who are almost all proficient in English;” (3) “English-only is the predominant pattern by the third generation;” and (4) “What third-generation bilingualism exists is found [*992] especially in border communities” (p.230).
Chapter 8 considers the experiences of children of immigrants. Not surprisingly, the human capital and social class of parents significantly affects the second generation’s prospects. Educational outcomes vary by nationality. Chinese and Filipino immigrants and parents have relatively few high school dropouts and high proportions of college graduates. Mexican, Cambodian, and Laotian immigrants are at the other extreme (p.249). Racial discrimination, bifurcation of the US labor market and its stark inequalities, and drug use and street gangs as an alternative lifestyle in cities, make successful adaptation to life in America more difficult for the second generation. Some children of immigrants experience assimilation problems because of their proximity to gangs and other criminal elements. In addition, the popular treatment of all persons of Mexican ancestry as “illegal aliens,” along with other forms of discrimination, makes it difficult for children of immigrants to assimilate.
Chapter 9, which was prepared in collaboration with Patricia Fernández-Kelly and William Haller, analyzes the importance of religion. Religion proves significant in the development of ethnic communities and can be associated with positive adaptive outcomes, such as lower incarceration rates. A recent survey found that, due in part to immigration, there is a vanishing Protestant majority in the United States, with Catholicism remaining at a stable 25 percent of the population, while non-Christian religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are increasing. IMMIGRANT AMERICA thoughtfully contrasts the Mexican (pp.331-335) and Muslim immigrant experiences with religion (pp.335-339).
Religion among immigrants is a rich topic for analysis. Further study is warranted of the efforts of Mormons, Evangelical Christians, and other religions to convert immigrants. As Portes and Rumbaut acknowledge, many children of immigrants move away from their parents’ religion. Similarly, research is needed on the role of religion in recent immigration debates. Many religious leaders sided with immigrants in the public discussion of immigration reform in 2006.
Chapter 10 addresses the million dollar question facing the United States at the dawn of the new millennium. The United States in recent years engaged in a robust national debate over immigration reform. The U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 passed a punitive bill that focused primarily on border enforcement and provoked mass marches in protest in cities across the country. The Senate later embraced a “comprehensive” reform measure, which included increased border enforcement, a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, and a temporary worker program.
Unfortunately, many reform proposals, such as border fences, treat immigration as an individual decision and fail to address the larger social forces contributing to immigration to the United States. Portes and Rumbaut [*993] observe that geopolitical events in which the US government was involved, affecting Mexico, China, the Philippines, El Salvador, South Korea and Vietnam, the top six countries sending legal immigrants, fuel immigration. In addition, research shows that social – family and employer – networks also contribute to migration to the United States. To this point, piecemeal reform focused on border enforcement that does not address broader immigration forces, has failed, but they have had devastating human costs, such as thousands of deaths on the US/Mexico border.
The chapter ends with a proposal for a temporary worker program capped at one million per year with a path to legalization. The authors leave open the status of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Ultimately, the reform proposal is not fully satisfying in light of the information about immigration and integration of immigrants they present earlier in the book. This is less of a criticism and more of a suggestion for another book focusing on immigration reform as well as more effective ways of facilitating the integration into American social life.
In conclusion, IMMIGRANT AMERICA offers a full and fair portrait of the population of immigrants in the contemporary United States. It deserves a wide readership and true consideration in the debate over reform of immigration laws. Put simply, Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut’s important book adds much need factual information and thoughtful analysis to one of the most pressing public policy issues of our time.
Huntington, Samuel. 2004. WHO ARE WE? THE CHALLENGES TO AMERICA’S NATIONAL IDENTITY. New York: Simon & Schuster.
© Copyright 2006 by the author, Kevin R. Johnson.
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