July 2, 2015

Bobby Jindal Worries About Immigrant Assimilation. He Shouldn’t.



Last week, in announcing his presidential candidacy for 2016, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal emphasized what seems to be a major point of his campaign: immigrant assimilation. In a Super PAC ad released this week, Jindal states that if immigrants want to come to America, they should do so legally, adopt our values, and learn English.

Jindal’s fears over immigrant assimilation are unwarranted. Let’s examine these three aspects of immigration.

First, Jindal fortunately (like other GOP candidates) supports expanding legal immigration. He said, “I do think we need to increase the number of people coming through the front door.” Elsewhere he argued, “One of the dumbest things we do right now is in the number of people with advanced degrees that we kick out.”

Republican candidates are coalescing around this position, which bodes well for the greater immigration-reform debate in D.C. (and beyond).

Second, Jindal wants immigrants to adopt American values. This amorphous term can mean many things. Jindal may be using “values” as a euphemism for political ideology. But while immigrants are assimilating into mainstream political positions, they may not align with Mr. Jindal’s values.

Alex Nowrasteh and Sam Wilson find that political differences between immigrants and native-born Americans are slim and in some cases statistically insignificant. Nowrasteh writes, “Immigrants have political and ideological opinions virtually indistinguishable from those of Americans. Where small differences exist, they are entirely gone by the second-generation.”

Two large factors account for the popular association of immigrants with the Democratic Party. First, some in the GOP are quick to use anti-immigrant rhetoric, driving away potential supporters. Second, many immigrants move into cities, where Democrats are normally in power. Their quick assimilation produces more Democrats than it would Republicans in these high-population areas. As the country shifts left, assimilating immigrants parallel this trend.

Perhaps economic decisions are what he means when he talks about adopting American values. Immigrant homeownership is projected to rise from one-fourth in 2000 to nearly three-fourths by 2030. This indicates that many immigrants are pursuing the American Dream, a core American value.

Maybe Jindal has crime in mind. He has said, “It is my view immigration can make a country stronger or weaker. It depends on whether the immigrants join your culture … your laws.” He should know, as I review in this post, that immigrants have a lower incarceration rate than native-born Americans and are generally less likely to commit crimes.

Regardless of his definition, immigrants are adopting American values.

Jindal’s third imperative for assimilation is the learning of English.

In 2014 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly half of new immigrants possess high English-speaking skills. They found that as of 2012, 44 percent of the foreign-born population (ages five and older) who arrived in the United States after 2000 reported high English-speaking ability. The number jumps 20 points for immigrants who arrived prior to 1980. Only around one in 10 in 2013 did not speak any English.

Many immigrants speak some level of English before arriving in the U.S. Friends, relatives, and organizations help many older immigrants grasp the language while school is hugely impactful for younger immigrants.

Immigrants who arrive before age ten attain education more widely, complete college, and acquire high English skills rapidly. Nearly three-fourths of immigrants with a bachelor’s degree have high-speaking ability, with only one in five having the same ability with just a high school education. Therefore promoting education through high-school is an effective way for language assimilation to progress.

Some studies project that the percentage of immigrants who speak English well or very well will rise to seven out of ten by 2030.

His concerns notwithstanding, Jindal should recognize the fast pace of assimilation for the majority of immigrants. They contribute to American society and the economy, all while learning American norms.

Jindal says, “Immigration can make a country stronger or weaker.” Immigrants to the United States clearly make America a better place, and that is why lawmakers should renew discussions on how to reduce restrictions on immigration.