SOE News

Alejandro Portes advocates eEnlightened programs for immigrants

“One out of every five people in the United States today is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant,” Alejandro Portes told an audience of 200 students and educators on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus April 18, 2006. His presentation focused on how we have reached that point in the United States, the challenges immigrants face during assimilation and what needs to be done.

Portes, a native of Cuba and the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton University, explained that efforts to control unauthorized migration have backfired because they have destroyed the circular migration patterns that traditionally brought workers to the United States while their families and children remained in Mexico. In the past, workers eventually returned to Mexico to rejoin their families. Now, intensified border control prevents workers from returning to Mexico; therefore, more immigrant families and children are living in the United States. These “second generation” immigrant children are the object of Portes’ study.

“One might expect this second generation to assimilate and claim their rightful place in American society,” Portes said. “Unfortunately that often does not happen.”

Portes pointed out that American society is a complex entity, and there are many barriers to immigrants’ successful assimilation. These barriers are not cultural or religious, but structural, according to Portes. The American economy continues to generate many low-status, low-wage jobs, but America does not produce domestic workers to fill these jobs. “Most American workers don’t want these jobs even if the wages were higher,” Portes commented.

“Mexican laborers are in the United States today not only because they want to be, but also because a Mom and Pop business wants them,” he said. “When the business no longer needs these workers, it leaves them vulnerable and unprotected.”

Since de-industrialization began in the 1960s, Portes explained, the shape of the American work force has come to resemble an hourglass. In the upper section are professionals, technical workers and entrepreneurs. In the bottom section are Mexican immigrants and other low-wage workers. “It is very hard for their children to cross over in one generation,” Portes said.

Second-generation immigrants take divergent paths, Portes explained. Some assimilate very successfully, such as Cuban immigrants attending private schools in Miami, who are given an opportunity to retain their native language and culture while also learning English and becoming a part of American society.

However, some other second generation immigrants are experiencing downward assimilation. “They are growing up in the United States under severe disadvantages,” Portes said. Their parents have very low human capital and little knowledge of how social institutions work in the United States. The children frequently live in central cities in conditions of poverty, are subjected to the lure of gangs and drugs as a quick way to money and power, and are the object of widespread discrimination. They often are forced to attend poor schools and have very little chance of pursuing advanced degrees.

So what needs to be done in the United States today? “We must engage in a serious search for three basic outcomes,” Portes said.

First, find ways to legalize immigration instead of blindly resisting it. “We need to bring the immigrant labor flow above ground,” he said. “Businesses that hire immigrants must pay necessary taxes and support the provision of services for this population.”

Second, restore a circular pattern of immigration. “As the American economy continues to depend on foreign labor, we need to find ways of creating incentives for voluntary return of migrant workers,” Portes said.

Third, we need to design enlightened programs to support immigrant families who are already settled in the United States. “We must find ways to support immigrant parental aspirations and parental authority to counteract the very real threat of downward assimilation,” Portes stated.

As the session concluded, one audience member expressed her respect and appreciation not only for Portes’ work, but also for his compassion. “I am a first-generation immigrant myself with two young children,” she said. “I was very touched by your talk because of the wonderful humanity you show behind the scientific data that you present.”