Immigration makes the American public anxious. Numbers is one reason; national origins another. Today's newcomers differ from yesterday's in one prime respect: They do not come from Europe. Instead, most new Americans come from Asia, the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico, with small, but growing numbers arriving from Africa and the Middle East.
The descendants of yesterday's immigrants wonder whether today's arrivals can make it in America, as did their forerunners. Increasingly influential voices say "no." But an appreciation of the socioeconomic diversity of today's immigrant population provides many reasons to say "yes."
Consider the roughly 1.1 million Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants who have made Los Angeles their home. Frequently highly skilled and college educated, many begin not at the bottom, but in the middle class or higher. Although the fate of the downtrodden immigrant usually dominates ethnic studies, the hidden story of today's immigration involves large numbers of high-status newcomers. In Los Angeles, such desirable fields as medicine, dentistry, engineering and computer specialties have high concentrations of immigrants. Almost all Asian and Middle Eastern groups are heavily ensconced in managerial jobs and in the professions--at rates that rival, and at times surpass, levels among whites.
This phenomenon reverses the tenets of the assimilation story, since the new middle-class immigrants often start out close to parity with native whites, if not ahead. Consider the transformation of Beverly Hills from movie-star haunt to the capital of the Iranian exile elite. A still better illustration is Monterey Park, which emerged in the late 1980s as the nation's first suburban Chinatown and where whites were discomfited by the rapid success of their immigrant neighbors.
Many of these immigrants leap into the middle class not only because they possess skills or capital, however. Part of their success story is the relentless spread of the mass media and the globalization of American culture: They are acculturated, to some degree, even before arriving in the United States. Some grow up in English-proficient environments. Others move through home-country school systems that gravitate toward the orbit of the United States. Consequently, many high-skilled immigrants are more "American," right from the start, than their predecessors ever dreamed of becoming.
Although the region's well-heeled immigrants begin with advantages, all newcomer groups include substantial numbers who are not faring particularly well. Vietnamese, Cambodians and Armenians from the Soviet Union are among these immigrants. And however respectable the earnings of Korean physicians and Chinese engineers, Korean cooks and Chinese sewing-machine operators bring home a much smaller paycheck, though they outpace their Mexican and Central American counterparts. While poverty rates for Asian immigrants tend to be lower than the region's average, the proportion of Asian immigrant children living in poverty is still disturbingly high.
Not all Asian and Middle Eastern newcomers to Los Angeles over the past three decades have been able to build on their skills, which is one reason why so many get drawn into ethnic concentrations, or niches, where they work with others of their own group. The various Asian and Middle Eastern niches contain their share of less desirable jobs, but they range widely over the work spectrum; hence, average earnings in the ethnic concentrations have gone up, in real terms, over time.
Movement into the middle class brings stepped-up assimilation. True, some newcomers prefer an ethnic neighborhood like Monterey Park and its adjacent suburbs or Orange County's Little Saigon. For the most part, however, each of the region's Asian and Middle Eastern groups has moved into the region along different paths. The result: Chinese and Filipinos are quite unlikely to live in close proximity to one another, a pattern duplicated by almost all other groups. Asian immigrants have also shown a penchant for moving into the newer areas of Orange County and elsewhere in the region's outer ring. Since these areas boast a good deal of mixing among all ethnic groups, neighborhood integration between Anglos and Asians has been on the upswing.
A look at language use shows the same pattern of change. It's not that our ears deceive: Chinese, Tagalog and Thai are spoken all around us. But there is also a rapid shift to English. Among Asian immigrants, six of 10 either speak English at home or speak it very well. Among the second generation, abandonment of the mother tongue is even more widespread.
The true test of immigrant adaptation lies in the future. It's too early to tell how the children of today's newcomers will fare, but the experience of native-born Asians is instructive. While discrimination against Asian Americans persists, it mostly takes the form of preventing male engineers or pharmacists from earning as much as comparable white males--not a satisfactory outcome, but one that has not blocked entry into the middle class. On most indicators of family well-being, native-born Asians do better, on average, than do the region's native whites.
Of course, today's population of native-born adults is a numerically small group; the pessimist might argue that conditions will change for the worse once the large cohort of immigrant children enters the labor market. A plausible scenario, but not necessarily the future.
Immigrant children will begin well-positioned to move ahead. On the whole, fewer Asian teenagers drop out of high school than whites; the comparison looks even better when one focuses on immigrant children who arrived in the United States younger than age 10. The disparity widens farther when it comes to college attendance: 18-to 24-year-olds in every Asian group attend college at a rate exceeding whites, with native-born Asian Americans leagues ahead of whites on this count. It's risky to predict how well employers will treat these students when they graduate. But in an economy that increasingly values high-level skills, it's reasonable to bet that the prevalence of college education will steadily lift the Asian economic boat.*