Progress Perceptions: How Ethnic Attrition Affects Research On Immigrants' Achievements

By Andrew Soboeiro

Last week, we discussed the role of ethnic attrition in our understanding of immigrants’ experiences and those of their descendants. The longer a family has been in the United States, the less likely its members are to identify with their country or ethnic group of origin. Instead, they come to identify as Americans, members of certain racial or ethnic groups as defined by US society, or both.

Because they often fail to account for ethnic attrition, researchers may misunderstand key trends that are occurring among immigrants as a whole or specific immigrant groups. This is an especially serious problem when it comes to studying the socioeconomic achievements of immigrants and their families.

The Attainments of Mexican Americans

Most immigrant groups make steady progress in the United States, with each generation having higher incomes and education levels than those of their parents, at least until they reach the American average. But until recently, Mexican immigrants and their descendants were thought to be an exception. While second-generation Mexican immigrants had more money or schooling than the first generation, progress seemed to stall after the third generation. Anti-immigration activists interpreted this to mean that Mexican migrants were not assimilating into American society effectively. Meanwhile, advocates for immigrants saw it as evidence that Mexican Americans were being held back by especially-virulent racism. But both groups agreed that it was a serious problem.

More recent research has cast doubt on the idea that Mexican immigrants are trailing other groups. Researchers realized that Mexican Americans who married Americans of other ethnicities, and thus were most likely to engage in ethnic attrition, tended to have higher incomes and more education than those who did not. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that after controlling for ethnic attrition, third-generation Mexican Americans continue to make steady progress in education. This suggests that the official data are understating Mexican Americans’ achievements and their history as successful, productive US citizens.

Asian American Achievements

Whereas ethnic attrition causes researchers to understate the achievements of Mexican Americans, for Asian Americans, it may have the opposite effect. A 2011 study published in American Economic Review found that those of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean descent who identified as “Asian” had higher levels of education than those who did not. Researchers are thus overestimating the overall education levels of Asian Americans.

Another 2011 study, published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, explored the effects of ethnic attrition on Japanese Americans specifically. They defined as “Japanese whites” those who are of mixed white and Japanese descent, but who identify only as “white.” Compared to Americans of full Japanese descent, Japanese whites had lower wages and less education, though both groups had higher wages and education levels than whites overall. This result suggests that the effects of ethnic attrition extend to income, further demonstrating that we must adjust for that trend if we are to understand immigrants’ achievements.

Vigoda Law Firm takes an active interest in ethnic attrition and all other issues that affect our ability to understand and address immigrants’ needs. For more information or to request our legal services, contact us today at 919-307-7817.