White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke about illegal immigration in an interview with NPR last week, stating that immigrants coming to the U.S. from Central America fail to assimilate into society due to poverty and a lack of education.
Immigration has become a larger concern in recent years, particularly as conditions in Central American countries have worsened, driving people away. The question of what to do about illegal immigration is causing issues even among people in the same political parties.
“They’re overwhelmingly rural people,” Kelly stated in the interview. “In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”
Civics Lesson: The First Wave of Immigration to the U.S.
The first wave of immigration to the United States began in 1607 with the first successful English colony settled in Jamestown, Virginia. This wave of immigration is known as the Colonial Era and lasted until the American Revolution in 1775. During that time, immigrants primarily arrived from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, Sweden, and Finland. Slavery was also legal during this time, and an estimated 6 to 7 million black slaves were brought from Africa to the New World during the 18th century alone.
Image: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
While there is some truth to Kelly’s base statements, the assumptions he makes based on those statements mostly pay homage to common stereotypes about immigrants.
Kelly is correct that most Central American immigrants who come to the United States don’t speak English initially; approximately 82 percent of immigrants who have been in the U.S. for less than a year do not speak English very well or at all. But research from the Cato Institute shows that immigrants do largely learn English the longer they are in the U.S.—a sign of successful assimilation.
As for skills, immigrants from Central America must certainly have them—as they’re employed at or above the rate of all U.S. adults within one year of arriving. In fact, Central American Immigrants on average are employed at a 13% higher rate than other U.S. natives, while Central American Natives are employed at a 19% higher rate.
When it comes to education, we see similar changes over time as they and their families assimilate. While half of Central American immigrants have no high school (50%), only ten percent of Central American Natives (the children of immigrants) lack a high school education.
Over time, the increase in education and participation in the work force also decrease the poverty rate for people with Central American ancestry, once again showing that when given the opportunity, Central American immigrants do assimilate, improve their socioeconomic status, and contribute to the U.S. economy.
The survey also looked at share in active duty military and found that Central American immigrants were twice as likely as other immigrants to enlist in the U.S. military and that Central American natives were more than twice as likely as other U.S. natives to enlist.
Perhaps most telling is that this data did not take into account the legal status of immigrants. Nearly half of all Central American immigrants are estimated to be in the U.S. without formal legal status, making it particularly remarkable that they have been successfully integrating into American society despite the fact that half are unable to find legal employment, are discriminated against, are not eligible for most public services, cannot receive in-state tuition, and could be deported at any time.
While illegal immigration certainly is still a problem that needs a better solution, this data shows that Central American immigrants assimilate perfectly well, contrary to what Kelly believes.