Hispanic/Latino Americans as an Example of a Second-Generation Immigrant-Descent Minority
Over the last two decades, four key trends have transformed the Latino experience in the United States. First, the Latino population emerged as the largest minority group in the country, comprising 16.3 percent of the US population, or 50.5 million people, in 2010. This represents a growth of 43 percent from 2000 to 2010. The Latino population is projected to continue to increase in the coming decades, reaching 132.8 million people or 30 percent of the US population in 2050 (US Census Bureau 2011). Second, members of the Latino second generation (i.e., those who were born in the United States to foreign‐born parents) are coming of age in sizable numbers. As a result, understanding their socioeconomic attainment in young adulthood provides useful clues to how their presence will transform patterns of ethnic and racial inequality in American society in the coming decades (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Alba and Nee 2003; Kasinitz et al. 2008; Lee and Bean 2010). Third, the constant replenishment of the Latino population with new immigrants has increased the heterogeneity among Latinos by ethnic origin, immigrant generation, social class background, and legal status (Tienda and Mitchell 2006; Telles and Ortiz 2008; Alba, Jiménez, and Marrow 2014; Waters 2014). Lastly, Latinos are increasingly settling in smaller cities and towns in new immigrant destinations outside of traditional immigrant gateways (Massey 2008; Marrow 2011; Kritz and Gurak 2015). This profound shift is both an unintended consequence of stricter border control policies that occurred in the 1990s (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002) and a direct result of demographic changes and economic restructuring in these new destinations (Marrow 2011; Flippen and Parrado 2012). Latino assimilation thus takes on both regional and national relevance.
Race is a social construct but one that has had real consequences in the United States. Although granted de facto White racial status with the United States conquest of much of Mexico in 1848 and having sometimes been deemed as White by the courts and censuses, Mexican Americans were rarely treated as White (Gomez, 2007; Haney-Lopez, 2006). Historically and legally, Mexicans have been treated as second-class citizens. Within a few short decades after their conquest in the mid-nineteenth century, Mexican Americans, although officially granted United States citizenship with full rights, lost much of their property and status and were relegated to low-status positions as laborers. Since then, Mexican immigration has continued to be of predominately low status. Throughout the twentieth century, Mexicans with low levels of education and from poor backgrounds immigrated to the United States to fill the lowest paid jobs (agriculture, domestic work, construction) with peaks during the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to 1929, during the agricultural guest worker program for Mexicans (Bracero program) from 1942 to 1964, and post the Immigration Act of 1965 which liberalized immigration from the Americas. Most of Mexican immigration has been to the southwestern United States, although Mexicans have begun to settle in nearly all regions of the United States since about 1990. This continuous immigration throughout the twentieth century has meant that the Mexican origin population in the United States includes many persons born in the United States, varying in generational status from first (immigrant) to fourth and even fifth generation. These later generations have continued to face educational and economic disadvantages as we documented in Generations of Exclusion (Telles & Ortiz, 2008). Unfair and discriminatory treatment against Mexican Americans has extended beyond the economic realm. School segregation has been extensive, both historically and in contemporary periods. Throughout history, Mexican children were sent to separate and inferior schools (Alvarez, 1986; San Miguel, 1987; Sanchez, 1993). School segregation was repeatedly challenged in the courts. While they were treated as non-white by Whites, challenges to segregation were won by employing the racial designation of White under the law, meaning that Mexicans as Whites could not be segregated from other Whites (Martinez, 1997). Courts did allow the segregation of Mexicans due to language or migrant status. In the post civil rights era, Mexicans were used as the non-Blacks that integrated schools for Black children (Gross, 2003; Mechaca, 1995)). Eventually Mexicans moved from being considered White to brown, probably due to both legal and social changes although it is difficult to tell which of these occurred first (Gross, 2003). As Mexicans came to be defined as non-whites, they were better able to make claims of unfair treatment and seek legal remedy.7 Persuasive anti-immigrant sentiment and treatment has also worked against all Mexicans whether immigrant or born in the United States. Viewed as alien and low status, Mexican immigrants were (and continue to be) scapegoated and targeted for mistreatment. Even though immigrants were a minority of all Mexican Americans up to the 1980s, the perception of all Mexican Americans as low status immigrants has been pervasive (Massey, 2009; Vasquez, 2010). The immigration legislation of the 1980s has made legal entry to the United States by Mexicans almost impossible, yet immigration has continued. This forced the overwhelming majority of Mexican immigrants in the late twentieth century to enter the United States without proper documentation. This has served to further fuse anti-Mexican and anti-undocumented immigrant sentiment (Massey, 2009). This suggests that in the eyes of many White Americans, all Mexicans are “illegal” and all “illegals” are Mexican (Chacón & Davis, 2006; Chavez, 2008)
Among immigrant men, employment may fall with age due to intragenerational assimilation—recently arrived Hispanic immigrant men are more likely to work than those who arrived longer ago, whereas the opposite holds among women. Older Hispanics immigrants have been in the U.S. longer, all else equal, and therefore more closely resemble the second generation in terms of employment rates. Alternatively, younger second- and third-generation Hispanics may differ in observable or unobservable ways from their older counterparts. For example, younger second-generation Hispanics are more likely than older ones to have two foreign-born parents (Perlmann 2005). Whether the intergenerational gap persists or ameliorates as young second-generation Hispanics move through the lifecycle is a key question.
To sum up, what we can say with certainty is that members of the second generation will have a major impact on this nation’s destiny for decades. And at this stage of their journey, we can provide some empirical assessments of their economic circumstances. For Hispanics and Asian Americans—the groups that comprise the bulk of the modern immigration wave—we can also provide some empirical assessments of their attitudes and beliefs, based on data gathered from our own surveys and those of the Census Bureau.
Bailey, Amanda, and Joseph M. Hayes. “Who’s in Prison? The Changing Demographics of Incarceration,” California Counts 8, no. 1 (2006).
Butcher, Kristin F. and Anne Morrison Piehl. “Why are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 13229, Cambridge, MA (July 2007).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey Overview,” Atlanta, GA (accessed December 2, 2009).