Data disproves the idea that Central American immigrants in the US don’t assimilate

There’s a high probability they’ll learn English and get a job.
There’s a high probability they’ll learn English and get a job.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Trump administration has cited a variety of reasons to justify its drive to stop illegal immigration. The latest, as explained by White House chief of staff John Kelly in an interview last week: The immigrants who are coming to the US these days are too uneducated and poor to successfully integrate into society.

Kelly, who was speaking to NPR, was referring to Central American immigrants, whose numbers have swelled in recent years as conditions in their home countries have deteriorated. “They’re overwhelmingly rural people. 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,” he said.

Many have pointed out that Kelly could have been speaking about his own ancestors, who came to the US from Ireland and Italy. Like the recent Central American arrivals, members of previous immigrant waves to the US were poor and had low levels of education. Many did not speak English. Kelly is a testament to their eventual assimilation.

Data compiled by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, show that Central Americans, too, have integrated into the US. And they are doing so despite facing harsher immigration restrictions than their predecessors.

“Integration of Central American immigrants is occurring despite the best efforts of the United States government to prevent it,” Cato policy analyst David Bier wrote in a report outlining the data.

“They don’t speak English”

It’s true that most Central American immigrants don’t speak English when they arrive to the US, but they tend to learn over time. The share of immigrants who don’t speak English well shrinks with each passing year in the US, as the chart below shows.

“They don’t have skills”

For people with no skills, Central American immigrants get jobs relatively quickly. In 2016, about half of those who had been in the US for less than a year were working. Those who had been in the US for a year or more were working at nearly the same rate or higher than the country’s overall adult population, according to the Cato report.

“Fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations”

About half of the Central American immigrants in the US in 2016 did not have a high school diploma, supporting Kelly’s claim. But the US-born descendants of Central American immigrants had similar years of schooling as other Americans.

And despite their low education levels, many are able to go up the socioeconomic ladder over time. The poverty rate for Central Americans declines the longer they are in the US.

“They don’t integrate well”

It’s hard to measure “Americanness,” but voluntarily enlisting in the military arguably is a telling sign of a person’s commitment to a country. The Cato report shows that Americans of Central American descent are more than twice as likely to be active duty members than other US-born people.

It’s a commitment that should resonate with Kelly, a retired four-star general.