By Andrew Soboeiro
Immigrant integration is a two-way street. The United States has a profound effect on how immigrants and their descendants live, work, and see themselves, but immigrants also influence the United States. And critically, these two effects are closely tied to each other. To the extent that this country offers immigrants a chance to become better educated and earn higher incomes, immigrants contribute new knowledge and wealth to this country. Likewise, just as immigrants introduce new perspectives to US politics, living in the United States informs immigrants’ political opinions.
While most discussions of these changes focus on politics and economics, living in the United States affects immigrants in even more profound ways, notably by changing the way they identify themselves. The longer an immigrant family has been in this country, the less likely its members are to identify with their original ethnicity or nationality. Known as ethnic attrition, this process is critical to understanding both the effect that the United States has on immigrants and the ways those immigrants change the United States.
An Overview of Ethnic Attrition
Ethnic attrition occurs when immigrants and their descendants jettison the ethnic or national identities that they arrived in the United States with, often to adopt new identities taken from American society. Immigrants of sub-Saharan African descent, for example, may come to identify as “black” or “African-American.” Likewise, Immigrants from Latin America who are phenotypically white often see themselves as simply “white” after living here for several generations.
In some cases, immigrants and their descendants will still identify with their country of origin, but will abandon the ethnic identities that are associated with it. For instance, it is common for people to mark “not Hispanic” on the Census but write “Mexican” as their ancestry. This suggests that many immigrants and descendants of immigrants identify with their ancestral nationalities, but not with the ethnic labels that American society has tied to them.
The Importance of Understanding Ethnic Attrition
In addition to revealing how immigrants see themselves, understanding ethnic attrition is essential for studying other aspects of the immigrant experience in America. These include:
- Social Mobility: Researchers study how different immigrant groups’ incomes and education levels change the longer that they are in the United States. But ethnic attrition complicates these studies, because individuals who cease to identify with a given group often have different incomes and education levels than those who do. Among Mexican Americans, for example, those who don’t identify as “Mexican” have higher incomes and more education than those who do. Studies that don’t control for ethnic attrition thus understate the socioeconomic attainments of Mexican immigrants and their descendants.
- Political Opinions: A 2011 study found that Hispanic and Latino Americans who have Spanish surnames are less likely to vote Republican than those who do not. Rates of ethnic attrition are highest among those who are of only partial Latin American descent; such individuals are also less likely to have Spanish surnames. This suggest that understanding ethnic attrition is essential to tracking the political attitudes of immigrants and their descendants.
- Religious Practice: In a 2011 study, researchers found that religious immigrants’ beliefs and practices tend to change after they arrive in the United States. In particular, immigrants tend to attend church services less often here than they did in their country of origin. While this study did not look at ethnic attrition, it is possible that immigrants who cease to identify with their country of origin tend to become less religious, or vice versa.
If researchers hope to understand American immigration, they must pay attention to ethnic attrition. Vigoda Law Firm is committed to understanding this process and all others that define the immigrant experience in the United States. For more information, contact us today at 919-307-7817.