Making It in America

New studies find that ethnicities have different experiences in America, but one factor unites all of them in their attempts at upward mobility.

By Galen Patterson, California State University, Fullerton


Immigrant success can be measured in different ways.

According to Dr. Tomas Jimenez, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, analysts will always study a variety of factors to try to contextualize their results, but amidst all their findings, many professionals find that just two measurements convey a pretty accurate depiction of an immigrant’s quality of life.

“Social scientists have historically measured success as income and education, but there is no objective measure of success,” he says.

Steven Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington D.C., studies the same field. CIS is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization studying immigration from various angles, and, like Jimenez, he understands success to be a relative term.

“It’s a very open concept, but we know that however we define it, many immigrants are very successful in the United States, and I think that you can easily argue that is a tribute to both them and the openness and success of American society,” he says.

Realizing the Dream: What Success Means to Immigrants

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In any method of measurement, immigrants generally still experience higher levels of poverty. A 2015 study conducted by CIS shows that 41 percent of all immigrants are in or near poverty, compared to the 28.4 percent of native-born Americans.

A look at education statistics reveals how diplomas affect income. Immigrants with less than a high school diploma are more likely to be in a lower socioeconomic bracket, with 63.4 percent being in or near poverty, while only 45.4 percent of immigrants who graduated high school are in or near poverty.

The changes become more significant with higher education. Only 19.6 percent of all immigrants with a Bachelor’s degree or higher are in or near poverty in the United States, compared to 11.6 percent of native-born Americans of the same education level.

“There’s nothing surprising about this,” says Camarota. “It turns out your mother was right when she told you to stay in school.”

Indeed, no other factor in socioeconomic success in America has as much of an impact as education level.

In addition to education, Americans have always prided themselves on their industry, praising the hardworking, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps individuals who make their own way. In more ways than one, immigrants have always been the original entrepreneurs.

“When talking about immigrants you’re talking about an incredibly diverse population, but, on the whole, they are some of the most motivated people in America,” says Jimenez.

According to Jimenez, high rates of immigrant entrepreneurship are partially due to the immigrant crossing deserts, mountains, oceans and borders to come to the country, while subsequently leaving everything behind.

“To do that,” says Jimenez, “you have to have an enormous amount of motivation, and you have to be somebody who is incredibly ambitious.”

However, the motivation isn’t permanent.

“That kind of immigrant drive tends to decline,” says Jimenez. “Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren born in the United States tend to have opportunities in that kind of normal labor market that may not exist for immigrants, so over time they may be less inclined to pursue entrepreneurship.”

When immigrants start their own business, they often then expand into the market by employing other culturally similar migrants, especially friends and family. In doing so, they create what sociologists call an “ethnic niche,” a term reserved for people of specific ethnicities who tend to network and open specific businesses.

Realizing the Dream: What Success Means to Immigrants

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“It’s not that immigrants are necessarily good at those things; it’s because pioneering immigrants find opportunities in those kinds of jobs and network with future migrants to funnel them into those jobs. Then, they often get defined ethnically,” says Jimenez.

Over time, people tend to think about those jobs as something that belongs to that culture. An example Jimenez offers is the disproportionate amount of nail salons owned by Vietnamese immigrants in California. “The networks play a huge role in success,” he says.

In the same study conducted by CIS, research finds that the self-employment rates of immigrants are very similar to those of native-born Americans, with both hovering around 11 percent of the population. However, immigrants from different countries and parts of the world have very different self-employment rates.

For example, one in four Iranian immigrants will be self-employed, while only 9.4 percent of Mexican immigrants will do the same. While some immigrants pursue the entrepreneurial path, others focus on the labor force in the United States.

Sometimes success in America boils down to hours of work.

“If you look at immigrants by education, what you see is that the least educated immigrants are much more likely to work, and they work more hours than the least educated native,” says Camarota.

In a study published by the Journal of Managerial Psychology, a team of psychologists assessed the feelings of immigrants that have been overworked, and compared their feelings to native-born Americans experiencing similar circumstances. The results showed that higher levels of respect from the workplace made immigrant employees feel better about working more hours than normal.

Meanwhile, native-born employees generally did not feel better. The authors of the study suggest that the findings indicate easier exploitation of immigrant labor versus native-born labor. The results may also help explain why the immigrant attachment to the labor force is a lot higher than that of native-born Americans.

One method in which the United States attracts immigrants is the promise of acceptance. To many immigrants, the United States is the land of starting over. While other countries might take in refugees, policies do not always exist to include those people into the collective society.

“No country allows in more people on a permanent basis with a clear path to citizenship than the United States,” Camarota says. In 2013, the country gave out roughly one million green cards, meaning the recipients became lawful permanent residents. “All of those people, if they choose, after a few years, can become citizens,” Camarota says.

Since success is relative, and the definition changes with perception and experience, while some immigrants seek their fortune, others are content with simply staying in the United States and enjoying the relative freedom and security. Immigrants are here to stay, legally or not. Over time, they will become Americans and get lost in the melting pot.