Social Significance: Ethnic Attrition & Immigrants' Impact On Society

By Andrew Soboeiro

In previous weeks, we’ve discussed ethnic attrition, or the process by which immigrant families abandon the ethnic and national identities that they held when first entering the United States. We explored how ethnic attrition impacts research on immigrants’ socioeconomic attainments, causing scholars to overestimate some groups’ achievements while underestimating others’. But socioeconomic attainments are by no means the only way immigrants affect and are affected by the United States. They also bring with them distinct beliefs about politics, religion, and other topics; these beliefs are in turn influenced by living in the United States.

Political Prospects

Immigrants have always had a profound effect on US politics, and some of the most important modern political trends are the direct result of immigration. In general, immigrants and their descendants tend to vote Democratic, though this varies depending on their country of origin and where they settle in the United States. This trend suggests that higher levels of immigration benefit the Democratic Party, at least in the short run.

Research that accounts for ethnic attrition complicates the image of immigrants as overwhelmingly Democratic. According to a 2011 study by Pineda Consulting, Hispanic and Latino Americans who do not have Spanish surnames are far more likely to vote Republican than those who do. In California, for example, only 44 percent of Hispanic voters who do not have Spanish surnames consider themselves Democrats, while among those with such names, 64 percent are Democrats. Individuals without Spanish surnames tend to be of only partial Latino descent, making them especially likely to engage in ethnic attrition. The official data, then, is likely overestimating Democratic strength among immigrants and their descendants. Only by adjusting for ethnic attrition can we fully understand newcomers’ impact on American politics.

Shifts in Spirituality

Political opinions are hardly the only beliefs that immigrants bring with them to the United States. Many also have religious beliefs, which are often different than those of native-born Americans. According to data from 2003, roughly two-thirds of new immigrants are Christian, compared to 81 percent of the total adult US population. Likewise, a far higher percentage of immigrants are Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, while a slightly smaller percentage are non-religious. Among Christians, immigrants are far more likely to be Catholic or Eastern Orthodox than the native population, which is predominantly Protestant.

While there has been little research on the relationship between religion and ethnic attrition specifically, a 2011 study did look at how immigrants’ religious practices changed after gaining permanent residence in the United States. Researchers found that immigrants tended to attend religious services less often than they did before coming to the United States. Although there are many possible explanations for this, it could be that assimilating into American culture causes immigrants to become less religious. If this is the case, controlling for ethnic attrition would likely show that immigrant families are less religious on average than current data suggest.

For more information on ethnic attrition and other keys to understanding American immigration, contact Vigoda Law Firm today at 919-307-7817.