The Immigrant Experience in America

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Immigration involves moving to a new country and establishing residency there. It can be voluntary or involuntary, temporary or permanent. In 2019, the United States had 23.2 million immigrants, or about 14 percent of the population. About half of those were naturalized citizens, and the other half were unauthorized immigrants.

Some people have a negative view of migrants and believe that they are a burden on economies in which they live, while others see them as an important source of economic growth. But the truth is that, at a national level, the impact of migration depends on many individual factors and is complex.

Migrants move for a variety of reasons, from wanting to pursue educational opportunities or business opportunities to escaping war and persecution. They come from countries of all sizes and types, and their experiences vary widely.

Depending on their origin and the nature of their migration, some immigrants face a harder time settling into their communities than others. For example, a refugee who leaves home because of a war may have to let go of a lot very quickly, often without the opportunity to prepare for it or say goodbye to loved ones. It’s also difficult for a migrant who enters the country illegally to get access to education, jobs and services.

Even for those who become citizens, the path to success is far from guaranteed. For example, researchers have found that those who are more successful in their first jobs tend to have higher levels of English proficiency and longer tenures in the United States than those who are less successful. But those who take part in civic engagement are also more likely to have better job outcomes than those who don’t (Chiswick and Miller 2009).

As a whole, immigrants contribute significantly to the American economy. They are consumers, workers and entrepreneurs. They generate billions in business revenue. And they pay tens of billions in taxes, including state and local taxes. But, as the Pew Research Center’s recent report “Now That I’m Here” finds, it takes a long time for most immigrant-led households to become fully integrated into U.S. society and reach the point where their members can climb the socioeconomic ladder, develop social connections and be civically engaged.

We need to have bigger, more nuanced discussions about the immigrant experience in America. Discussions that attend to the specific contexts that so often get swallowed up by a label that alternately paints migrants as a problem (overwhelming our borders, sucking up governmental resources, taking American jobs) or as model success stories. We need to hear from the people who are at the heart of this story. Their voices can help us understand how to achieve the true promise of America’s democracy. To that end, this month, we asked a nationally representative sample of foreign-born adults whether or not they were “fully integrated” in American life. We then conducted focus groups and interviews in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Sioux Falls, SD.