The Naturalization Process and College Reunions: A Metaphor

By David North on October 7, 2010

The people who have naturalized in the U.S. in the last decade are less well educated, and earn less in constant dollars than those who went through that process 20 years earlier – and there are far more of them.

That's the sobering news that can be seen in a recent publication of the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics; it is entitled "Characteristics of Persons Naturalizing in the United States Between 1980 and 2008" and was written by James Lee.

The paper shows the characteristics of all who naturalized in three periods – 1980-1989, 1990-1999, and 2000-2008 – using calendar years, and dealing with people age 18 and older.

The key percentages are these: 19.9 percent of the first cohort (1980-1989) were not high school graduates, 22.8 percent were not in 2000-2008; similarly while 35.5 percent of the first cohort had college degrees or more, only 32.9 percent of the last cohort had those characteristics.

As to median family income, that fell from $79,231 (in 2008 constant dollars) for the first cohort to $61,103 for the last group. Meanwhile, the percentage of people from Mexico nearly doubled from 8.4 percent to 16.3 percent.

The numbers of the naturalized soared from 2,139,598 in the first decade, to 5,040,769 in the second, to 6,104,325 in the third. That worked out in recent years to about 600,000 a year on average, compared to the flow of immigrants which has been over 1.1 million a year, on average.

You can think of the mix of characteristics of the naturalized vs. the mix for all immigrants as roughly similar to what you see at a high school or a college reunion. Whatever the mix of the people you went to school with – it is an elite subset that shows up for the reunions. Clearly only those still living return, and generally it is the healthier, wealthier, more self-confident, and better preserved ones, who attend reunions. (My sense is that the sick, the wall flowers, and most of the failures stay home.)

So it is with the naturalized as opposed to all international migrants. The naturalization process – and I studied it for the Ford Foundation several decades ago – creates hurdles in terms of money, linguistic skills, self-confidence, education, and levels of patience, and those hurdles sort out people who lack one or more of these strengths. Hence the naturalized subset of immigrants are better educated and more competent in the workforce than immigrants generally.

Despite the workings of these sorting mechanisms, we are seeing a decline over time in educational levels and in income; it is discouraging.