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Immigrant America: A Portrait

May 08, 2024 (11 min read)

UCI, May 7, 2024

"In their newly released edition of Immigrant America: A Portrait (University of California Press), UCI Distinguished Professor of sociology Rubén G. Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes of both Princeton University and the University of Miami, provide their fifth decennial update of the "permanently unfinished" story of immigration to the U.S. A modern classic, considered foundational to the field, the updated work examines major periods of U.S. immigration history, the formation of distinct types of migrants, their patterns of settlement and adaptation to the American economy, society and culture, and the coming of age of the generation of their children amid unanticipated local and global events - including, over the past decade, seismic shifts in the wake of political policymaking and the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, Rumbaut reflects on the evolution of Immigrant America from its inception, alongside snapshots of how changing flows and patterns of immigration continue to transform the American mosaic. 

Q: When you launched the first edition of this book back in the 1980s, did you foresee such expansive updates happening each decade since? In this fifth edition, what significant changes or developments have you identified compared to previous editions, and how have these impacted your understanding of the immigrant experience in America?

A: We never imagined, when we began work on this book in 1985, that we would go on to write five editions, one per decade, each striving to keep up with a “permanently unfinished” society transformed by immigrants who would themselves be transformed in the process. I would have been stunned to learn that our study of the odysseys of millions of newcomers from all over the world to the United States would itself become an odyssey—and a “permanently unfinished” book at that.

Back then—in a decade marked by growing flows of legal immigrants (mostly from non-European countries), by the Mariel boatlift, historic highs in refugee resettlement (notably from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the aftermath of the nation’s then longest war), tens of thousands of escapees from wars in Central America who were denied refugee status in the context of the Cold War, and the passage of IRCA in 1986 (including an unprecedented legalization of formerly undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico)—it had become clear that a U-turn had taken place in American immigration history. Not long before, in 1970, the U.S. census had found that the foreign-born accounted for only 4.7% of the total population—the lowest proportion since 1850, when it first recorded the country of birth of U.S. residents. 

Already then we had been systematically studying the phenomenon for years—indeed, we had lived it—but could not foresee just how “unfinished” this society was, or how transformed it would become, or how dramatically the larger world would change. What was missing was an effort to pull together the many strands of our available knowledge about these matters, and to offer a synthesis of its major aspects that was both comprehensive and comprehensible.

Four decades and four editions later, we have continued to bring this extraordinary story up to date—but one that has grown in complexity and controversy. Each new edition has had to assess demographic trends and immigration flows, but also grapple with entirely unanticipated events from the local to the global level which impact the social, economic, political, and cultural development of American society, the incorporation of its newest members, and the reaction of natives—and nativists—toward them. 

Over the course of our writing, we have witnessed countries that ceased to exist (including the Soviet Union) and many others that came into being; the end of the Cold War; an era of economic restructuring, widening inequality, and mass incarceration; a Great Recession; new spasms of nativism and xenophobia; the attacks of September 11; the beginning and end of the longest war in U.S. history (in Afghanistan), the Iraq War and a “War on Terror;” the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, ICE and CPB; the punitive turn in immigration policy, the political paralysis of comprehensive immigration reform, the criminalization of immigration and the detention and deportation of millions; the fate of the “Dreamers;” the desperate odysseys of asylum seekers; the explosive growth of the world’s forcibly displaced populations (more than 110 million people by 2023, by far the most since UNHCR started counting after World War II); a once-in-a-century global pandemic that in 2020 brought international migration virtually to a halt; and the most serious threat to American democracy since the Civil War. History, as we never cease to relearn, does not repeat itself, but it echoes.

From today’s vantage, we see that more immigrants arrived in the half century from 1970 to 2020 than did during the full century from the 1820s to the 1920s. Census data show the foreign-born population doubled from 1970 to 1990 (to 20 million), then doubled again by 2010 (to 40 million), then increased more slowly to 44.5 million by 2017 (13.7% of the U.S. population)—at which point it plateaued from 2017 to 2019, reflecting the policies of the Trump Administration (from Muslim bans and “zero tolerance” family separations to the decimation of the refugee resettlement program), and then dropped in both size and share for the first time in fifty years in the annus horribilis of 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, today the “immigrant stock” of the United States—the first and second generations of immigrants and their U.S.-born children—numbers about 84 million people (over a quarter of the total population), overwhelmingly of Latin American and Asian origins, whose descendants will reshape the contours of American society.

All the while we have kept tab on the hardships and triumphs of immigrants and refugees and their children, who have not only contributed variously and even vitally to their adoptive country but have been and will continue to be the principal drivers of the growth of the American population and labor force. Along the way we added entirely new chapters—on the new second generation, religion, history, theory, immigration policies—while expanding and updating core chapters on patterns of settlement, education, occupation, entrepreneurship, naturalization and political participation, transnationalism and assimilation, identity and emergent ethnicities, acculturation and mental health, linguistic diversity and bilingualism.

Q: Your book delves into various aspects of immigration, including economic, political, regional, linguistic, and religious dimensions. Could you discuss how these different facets contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the immigrant experience in the United States, and are there any specific trends or patterns that have emerged in recent years that surprised you or challenged existing perceptions?

A: Immigrants are not a homogeneous population. The current diversity surpasses that of the Great European Waves of a century ago, not only in their national and cultural origins but notably in their class backgrounds: The most educated and the least educated groups in the United States today are immigrants, and immigrants are found at both ends of the occupational structure and the economic spectrum—a reflection of polar-opposite types of migrations, contexts of exit and reception (including government policies), and the progressive bifurcation of the American economy in the postindustrial era. To get an analytical handle on this complexity, we identified main types of immigrants and followed their patterns of settlement and modes of incorporation in the American economy, polity, society and culture.

After the 1965 repeal of the National Origins Quota laws that had been in effect since 1924, immigrant America changed profoundly if unexpectedly. The human drama of the story remains riveting, but the cast of characters and their circumstances have changed in complex ways. While immigrants come from over 200 countries and territories, most (around 60%) come from just 10. In 1970, the U.S. foreign-born population was dominated by Canadians and Europeans (Italy, Germany, the U.K., Poland, the Soviet Union); only Mexico and (for the first time) Cuba made the top 10. By 1980, 6 of the top 10 were still Canadians and Europeans; by 1990, 4 of the 10; by 2000, 2 of the 10; and ever since, the top 10 all come from Latin America or Asia (Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Korea). In 1990 and 2000, the top two foreign-born populations came from Mexico and the Philippines; in 2010 and 2020, the top two were Mexico and India, with the Mexican share declining since the Great Recession. 

While immigrants come to all 50 states, most are concentrated in a handful. By 1990, one-third of the foreign-born population of the U.S. resided in one state: California. The 80s were a transformative decade for California; I’ve had a front-row seat to its history. Today California is still home to 27% of all immigrants in the U.S.; more than a fourth of the state’s population is foreign-born—a greater proportion than any other state—and more than half of its nearly 40 million residents consist of immigrants and their U.S.-born children. Indeed, Southern California is home to the largest concentrations of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Filipinos, Cambodians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Iranians, and other nationalities outside of their respective countries of origin. Most of the largest immigrant nationalities in the U.S. today have established their primary enclaves in Greater Los Angeles.

When I moved to UC Irvine over two decades ago, my bilingual 8-year-old son and I stopped at a Starbucks near campus. He had heard nothing but Spanish when we went to Home Depot and other stores—but now he heard new languages. I told him that some students were speaking Chinese, others Korean or Vietnamese. He sipped on his hot chocolate for a moment and said, “Papi, I don’t think anyone in California was born in the United States.” 

Things were different in 1910, at the height of European immigration, when nearly 15% of the U.S. population was foreign born. Of those millions of immigrants, 25% spoke English as their “mother tongue” (they came mainly from Ireland, Great Britain, and Canada); 20% spoke German (the largest non-English immigrant language), followed by Italian (10%), then Yiddish, Polish and other European languages; Spanish was far behind them all.

As mass European immigration waned over the subsequent decades, so did linguistic diversity. By 1970, English was still the language spoken by the largest number of immigrants (again chiefly from Canada, the U.K. and Ireland). That year likely marked the end of the most linguistically homogeneous era in U.S. history… and by then the U.S. had earned a dubious reputation as a language graveyard.

But by 1980, for the first time, a non-English language—Spanish—surpassed English as the language spoken by more immigrants than any other. Spanish is now by far the most widely spoken non-English language in the United States. Today, 42 million Spanish speakers make up 13.5 percent of the total population, and nearly two-thirds of all 71 million non-English speakers. 

However, fluency in non-English languages declines over the generations. We have shown that for all groups without exception, proficiency and preference for English is well established by the second generation and entirely dominant by the third, with fluent bilingualism rapidly atrophying. What is novel now is that bilingualism is positively associated with educational, occupational, and economic attainment among those youths who have managed to maintain their linguistic skills despite strong assimilative pressures.

Q: Your work extensively explores the adaptation process experienced by adult children of immigrants. How has this process evolved over the years?

A: Much of our work over the decades involved poring over a vast research literature as well as analyzing national and regional data from the decennial censuses, official statistics, and large-scale surveys. But in 1980, the U.S. census eliminated the questions on parental nativity which it had asked since 1870; as a result it became impossible to collect data on the second generation from the nation’s principal data set.

When the Current Population Survey (CPS) restored those questions in the 90s, we confirmed that the new second generation was still very young: the median age of the U.S.-born children of all immigrants from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa was 12, and the median age of the children of the most recently arrived was younger still, in single digits (including Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Salvadorans and Guatemalans).  In sharp contrast, for Europeans their median age was about 60, and 70 for Italians, Poles and Russians—the aging members of the old second generation.

To fill the dearth of available data, we launched the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS)—based on representative samples drawn in 1991 of over 5,000 young people enrolled in the 8th and 9th grades in San Diego and South Florida schools (whose parents had come from dozens of countries), and who we followed into adulthood. Our results detailed their diverse mobility paths and trajectories to adulthood, theorized as a process of “segmented assimilation.” CILS became the centerpiece of a chapter on the new second generation which we added to our book, updating our findings from the second edition to the fifth just out this month.

We also published two companion books based on CILS: Legacies and Ethnicities. When in 2002, in the same month I took my son to that Starbucks by UCI, we received the best book award of the American Sociological Association for Legacies—which we had dedicated to our children, our legacies—I noted for the record, wryly, that “we not only study children of immigrants, we make them… and that’s the ultimate in participant observation.”

Q: You conclude this edition with an analysis on changing immigration policies both past and present. How do you see these changes influencing the dynamics of immigration and the experiences of immigrants in the United States?

A: As long-term participant observers of immigration, we have seen changes cascade, not trickle, in each of the preceding decades. But while immigrant America continues to change, as does the world that spawns it, the goal that originally inspired this book remains the same: to make reasoned sense of complex and controversial issues, and to make our living portrait of immigrant America broadly accessible – all the more urgent today, in our highly charged and polarized moment, with immigration a white-hot issue of political debate and depicted from powerful pulpits in the xenophobic discourse of demagogues (“poisoning the blood of our country”) and of fact-free conspiracy theories rife with stereotype and aiming to frame immigrants as threats.

From the first edition to this newest one, we hope our book has served and will continue to serve as a fact-filled challenge to those nativist views, and as a stimulus to gain additional knowledge and insight about the newest members of this society—and increasingly about the generations of their children and grandchildren—who will shape its future.


Rubén G. Rumbaut is a Distinguished Professor of sociology at UC Irvine. He is the author of more than two hundred scholarly papers on immigrants and refugees in the U.S., coauthor or coeditor of 19 books and special issues, and an elected fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education."