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  • Precarious Prosperity

    Part: 1, 2, 3, 4


    Students display a sign from the window of a bus after protesting in front of Dallas City Hall March 27, 2006 in Dallas, Texas. Immigration reform bill HR4437 considers an unlawful presence in the U.S. a felony, with undocumented immigrants facing potential jail time.
    Photo by Jensen Walker/Getty Images

    A sign that assimilation is still a powerful force emerges in schools. The children of immigrants are doing better at school than their parents. Immigrant children are also narrowing the educational gap with native-born Americans. Hereís one representative snapshot taken by Ron Haskins, director of the Brookings Institutionís Center on Children and Families. He looked at the educational attainment for first-generation, second-generation and non-immigrants age 25 and over in 2004. Among first-generation immigrants 21 percent didnít have a high school degree. But only 6 percent of second-generation immigrants didnít, and that figure was close to the 4 percent figure for non-immigrants.

    Indeed, by every measure second-generation immigrants do better than the first generation by a considerable margin, he says. Looking at immigrants from Mexico, the second generation closes about half the gap between their parents and non-immigrants. That performance is right in line with historic experience. "With the data sets and comparisons we can make it doesnít look like the pace of assimilation correlated this way - fathers and mothers with sons and daughters - has really changed," says Card. "Typically children of immigrants close one-half of the disadvantage."

    Certainly, the language barrier is shrinking. Itís striking that 72 percent of first-generation Latino immigrants use Spanish as their main language. The comparable figure for the second generation is 7 percent, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Center and Kaiser Family Foundation. On a more troubling sign of successful assimilation, second generation immigrants are more likely to have teenage pregnancies, join gangs, drink and take drugs than their parents. But thatís because theyíre embracing the dominant culture.

    Schools remain an area of concern. Budgets are tight in the K-12 urban and rural schools where immigrants tend to congregate. School districts in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami, New York, and other immigration centers bear the financial brunt of educating the children of immigrants. Teaching the children of immigrants costs 20 percent to 40 percent more than educating their English-speaking peers, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

    The results are often worrisome. For instance, 38 percent of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are English learners, and although 54 languages are spoken in the District the main language other than English is Spanish. On the fourth grade California standards tests, English learners in the Los Angeles Unified School District were 41 points behind their English-speaking peers in reading, and 30 points behind in math, according to Russlynn Ali, executive director of The Education Trust-West in Oakland. High school dropout rates are high, too.

    Indeed, the high cost of educating immigrants in public schools fuels a perception that illegal and legal immigrants are a drain on taxpayers. They show up in emergency rooms when theyíre hurt or sick, and often they donít have health insurance. The presence of illegal immigrants puts pressure on law enforcement budgets, especially in border states.

    But most illegal and legal immigrants arenít wards of the state. Illegals arenít eligible for welfare, and many legal immigrants steer clear of it despite qualifying for benefits. Illegal immigrants pay taxes, too. Immigrants have lower crime rates than natives.

    Taken altogether, "snapshot" calculations of a fiscal year or two tend to show immigrants are a small net cost to a community. But forward-looking projections over an immigrantís lifetime that try to incorporate rising earnings and higher tax payments, as well as the economic contribution of their children, often arrive at a minor net benefit conclusion. In the end, considering the size of the nationís nearly $14 trillion economy, and the fractional percents of gross domestic product found on either the positive or negative side of the fiscal ledger, itís reasonable to conclude that the aggregate national, local and state government fiscal equation comes out a wash. Even if the net cost comes out negative, using figures from Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, the price tag to native-born Americans is nearly half the $13 billion cost of border enforcement in the federal governmentís 2008 budget.


    Continue to part 4