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Immigration Study: 'Second Generation' Has Edge

In much of the debate over immigration, there is an underlying question: Are today's immigrants assimilating into the mainstream as easily as past generations?

The answer, at least in New York City, is an unqualified "yes," according to the results of a 10-year study involving more than 3,000 young men and women, most of them in their 20s.

John Mollenkopf, a professor at City University of New York and an author of the study, says that if you look at the children of immigrants, "the kids are doing well compared to their parents and also doing well compared to the native-born comparison groups."

The "second generation" project looked at five groups — Russians, Dominicans, South Americans, Chinese and West Indians — and compared them with U.S.-born whites, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. Researchers found that most in the second generation were fluent in English and working in the mainstream economy. When they looked at economic and educational achievement, they found that West Indians were doing better, in general, than African-Americans; Dominicans were doing better than Puerto Ricans; and the Chinese and the Russians were doing as well as or better than native-born whites.

Because this is New York City and most study participants are the children of people who came to the United States 20 to 30 years ago, their parents either entered legally or found it relatively easy to obtain legal status even if they came illegally.

Legal immigration is more difficult today, and researchers note that this may well change the rate of assimilation. But for these five groups, "what we really find is a very rapid assimilation and becoming American," says Mary Waters of Harvard University, another author of the study, titled Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age, and recently published as a book.

Inheriting the City also uncovered cultural differences that may give the children of some immigrant groups certain advantages. Many members of this second generation interviewed for this story said their parents had pushed them to succeed academically. This is a common theme in immigrant families, even a stereotype.

Enia Titova, who came from Russia when she was 12, attended Stuyvesant, an elite New York public high school. "In a lot of Russian families, if you don't have a graduate degree, it is frowned upon," she says. "When you get a 96, parents want to know where the other four points went — that's the question, I think, in a lot of immigrant households."

But the researchers also found something unexpected: Some groups, such as Chinese immigrants, knew how to work the system more effectively than others.

"We interviewed one young woman whose mother worked in a garment factory and had very little education," Waters says. "She said her mother didn't even know what Stuyvesant was, but she knew from the other moms in the garment factory — I need to get my kid into this school."

Ling Wu Kong, who came from China when he was 2 and now attends law school, says Waters is correct. "Every time there is a student who maxes out on the SAT, their picture is prominently placed on the front page in the Chinese newspapers," he says. "They give you a pretty good idea of what to expect, so even for people whose parents don't speak English, they are able to navigate the system."

It's a little different for other groups.

Waters says researchers also met Dominican kids who had gotten into Stuyvesant, but whose parents didn't let them go to the school because they would have to take a subway and go across bad neighborhoods to get there.

Cristina Carpio's parents came from Ecuador. Now a medical student, Carpio says she went to Stuyvesant only after persuading her mother to let her go. "During the orientation week, my sister took me to Stuyvesant to ease my mother's fears," she says, adding that her sister told her mother, "Look, she knows how to take the subway, she knows how to do it on her own, she has to go to that school. There is no other way."

The study, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, found that the children of immigrants in New York City had another big advantage: Many of them continue to live at home with their parents.

Carpio says that when she becomes an intern next year, "I will be moving back home because I can save money on the rent and pay for my loans." And Ling feels it wouldn't be right if he didn't go home. "There is this ideal in the Chinese community, when everyone lives together. I'm living at home now," he says, laughing.

That cultural difference can have huge economic consequences, says Philip Kasinitz, a professor of sociology at City University who also helped write the study. "Black Americans, white Americans and Puerto Ricans seem to share the idea that you must leave home in your teens or early 20s, and that there is something wrong with you if you are still living with your parents in your mid-20s," he says.

In New York, he notes, given real estate values, this can help the children of immigrants get their careers established and finish their education.

Although Inheriting the City paints an optimistic portrait of this second generation, it has some warnings about the situation facing native-born minorities. The researchers also say the children of undocumented immigrants tend to do worse and have a tougher time assimilating. Because legal immigration is tougher to come by today, researchers say they wonder whether the path for the next "second generation" will be as smooth.

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Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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