Immigrants are now better assimilated into U.S. culture than at anytime since the 1980s — largely because the recession slowed the arrival of newer immigrants who speak less English and have had less time to learn how to fit in, according to a new study.
The Provo-Orem metro area has even higher levels of assimilation than the national average, but the Salt Lake City-Ogden metro area is a bit below average and dropped slightly last year, according to a report released Monday by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which seeks to "foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility."
"The degree of similarities between the foreign- and native-born populations is now higher than it has been in a generation," said the report written by Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor.
He used a variety U.S. Census Bureau data on such things as ability to speak English, citizenship, military service, earnings, homeownership, education and even whether immigrants marry native-born residents, to compile an "assimilation index."
He wrote that the score of that index "now stands at 30, after spending more than two decades in the 20s."
The study noted that immigration slowed dramatically from Mexico during the recession as fewer jobs were available and also shifted so that, by 2011, roughly equal numbers of immigrants came from Mexico and Asia. The study said that traditionally, Asians have higher rates of assimilation.
"The rise in assimilation," the study said, "can be attributed to this slowdown and shift in the arrival rate of new immigrants."
Locally, the 2011 assimilation index score in the Provo-Orem area rose to 34 — or four points higher than the national average — up dramatically from a score of 19 in 2010. In the Salt Lake City-Ogden metro area, the score dropped to 27 from 28.
Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, said assimilation rates in Utah County may be higher because many of the newer immigrants there are more highly educated. He said Salt Lake County is where many of the newest immigrants continue to arrive and live.
"You become more American over time. The first two years you are basically learning the language. It takes three or four years to really start to become more like everybody else," said Yapias, who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru 30 years ago. "Most immigrants here now have been in Utah 10 years or more."
That is backed by David Stringfellow, chief economist for State Auditor John Dougall, who notes census estimates show that 8 percent of Utah residents are foreign-born — and 60 percent of them arrived before 2000.
He said a third of them are now U.S. citizens. 61 percent come from Latin America, 17 percent from Asia, 11 percent from Europe and the rest from other places around the globe, Stringfellow said.
Yapias said the higher assimilation rates may help lower the temperature on the hot debate over immigration reform.
"Sometimes there’s a tendency for people to say, ‘They don’t want to learn English,’ or ‘They don’t want to assimilate.’ It takes a long time," Yapias said. "I hope this helps people realize we are no different than anyone else. We want to be part of the communities where we live. ... We contribute to the economy. We’re here to stay."
The study also gave assimilation scores nationally for the 10 largest immigrant groups. Those higher than the national average, in descending order, were: Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and Cuba.
Those that had lower-than-average assimilation included, in order toward the lowest, China, India, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala.
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