Education is the key, but some immigrants don't reach for it

July 24, 1996|By Frank del Olmo

LOS ANGELES -- If demographics is destiny, as demographers say, then neither side in the polarized debate over this nation's immigration future can take much comfort in a recent study of immigration statistics done by the Rand Corp.

For the past decade, researchers at the Santa Monica, Calif., think tank have been notably objective and admirably restrained in trying to bring better public understanding to a very contentious issue.

Their latest effort analyzes census data from 1970 to 1990 in an attempt to gauge how well recent immigrants (both legal and illegal, since the Census Bureau makes no distinction in its fact-gathering) have fared in comparison with U.S. citizens with regard to schooling and jobs. The record is decidedly mixed.

Education the key

Those who see the immigration glass as half full can cite the two Rand studies to argue that the American Dream is alive and well, at least for those immigrant families who push education as the way to achieve it.

Immigrant children are just as likely to finish high school as their U.S.-born counterparts, and somewhat more likely to finish four years of college. And while immigrant workers from Europe and Asia start out earning less than U.S. workers, they rapidly reach pay parity.

But those who see the immigration glass as half empty will point to some very real social problems identified by Rand, particularly with regard to immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Not only are Latino immigrants not keeping up with U.S. citizens and other immigrants in school and at work, but the gap may be widening.

Growing wage gap

In 1970, workers from Mexico and Central America earned an average wage 25 percent to 40 percent lower than native-born workers; by 1990, the difference was 50 percent.

And not enough of these immigrants are using education to catch up: 73 percent of Mexican-born teen-agers in the U.S. are in high school, compared with 90 percent of those born in other countries.

Such findings will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the immigration issue with an open mind over the past few years. They have been hinted at in other research, some of it cited in the Rand survey.

Unfortunately, some of those earlier studies were seized upon by anti-immigrant extremists who have misused them to create a nasty myth that immigrants coming to the United States today are somehow of lesser ''quality'' than those who came here in the nation's past.

Such canards should not be allowed to detract from the profoundly important implications of the Rand findings. For they point to a challenge facing those Americans (including myself) who think this nation must remain open to newcomers of all nationalities if it is to prosper in the future as it has in the past: How can we make sure that immigrants do contribute to our economy, and society as a whole, rather than becoming a drag on it?

Sturm und Drang

There are viable answers to that difficult question, even if they are often as complicated as the immigration issue itself. Unfortunately, calm discussion of provocative proposals like guest-worker programs or special education efforts aimed at Latino youngsters has become difficult amid the Sturm und Drang of current immigration politics.

And it does not help things when political leaders who should know better insist that the immigration ''problem'' can be ''solved'' just by building higher fences or throwing immigrant kids out of school.

Among the handful of firm conclusions I have come to in more than 20 years of reporting and writing on immigration is that absolutely nothing we do in the future can alter what is already happening in the present because our past immigration policies were lax, uncertain or politically manipulated. (They've been all three at one time or other.)

As noted above, demographics is destiny. Or, as Rand researcher George Vernes put it: ''No matter what we do on immigration, the problems are here.''

''Problem people''

That's why people who still believe that this nation can have a bright immigration future must not dismiss these latest Rand reports as intellectual immigrant-bashing or, as one Latino leader I heard from said, yet another attempt to paint Latinos as ''a problem people.''

Read them carefully and you'll find that these reports don't fault immigrants; rather, they suggest that the problem is our society's failure to help young immigrants, whether in the schools or on the job, assimilate to the American mainstream.

If thoughtful and well-meaning people don't use these Rand studies to help craft policies that really will solve some of the problems associated with our current immigration system, they will cede the political initiative to extremists who would just as soon tear down the Statue of Liberty.

Frank Del Olmo is assistant to the editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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