Immigrants and Culture -- Two Value Systems

By Lawrence Harrison
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 12, Number 2 (Winter 2001-2002)
Issue theme: "The terrorists among us"

Much of the national debate on immigration bulks all immigrants together, often as "legal" or "illegal." But the fact is that there are wide variations in the economic and political performance of immigrants, and these variations frequently reflect differences in cultural values and attitudes.

[Here, in his report, Mr. Harrison presents a chart that canmnot be duplicated in this format but is available in the PDF version. In two columns showing "Progress-Prone Culture" traits and those of a "Progress-Resistant Culture" he contrasts values related to such factors as beliefs about wealth, education, ethics, and authority.]

I want to stress that [the table] presents in black and white a reality that is gray. But many people have found it helpful in understanding why some cultures work better for human beings than others do.

In general, the progress-prone value system is represented in the United States by immigrants from Confucian-culture areas in East Asia, while immigrants from Latin America are predominantly influenced by the progress-resistant Ibero-American culture. Using data mostly from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), I focus on the contrast between Chinese and Koreans on the one hand, and Mexicans and El Salvadorans on the other. The data require more sophisticated interpretation, but the general picture these statistics paint is sufficiently accurate for our purposes. [Here again, Mr. Harrison provides a chart of comparisons that can only be seen in the PDF format.]

In this table, one can see that East Asians are more entrepreneurial than Latin Americans, a contrast reflected in the substantially higher per-capita incomes in East Asian countries than in Latin American countries. Seventeen percent of Chinese and twenty-four percent of Korean immigrants to the U.S. are self-employed, while only six percent of Mexican and three percent of El Salvadoran immigrants are self-employed. The average for native Americans is twelve percent. To be sure, East Asian immigrants -- and American natives -- are generally more educated than Latin American immigrants. But a RAND Corporation study of the 1990 census data concluded, "Even if immigrants had completed the same number of years as natives, a significant gap would remain between Mexicans and natives."

The Confucian emphasis on education shows clearly in the data: fifty-five percent of Chinese and forty-six percent of Koreans have bachelor or higher degrees. The figure for Mexicans and El Salvadorans is six percent. Sixteen percent of Chinese and four percent of Koreans did not finish high school, compared to sixty-four percent of Mexicans and fifty-three percent of El Salvadorans.

Thirty percent of Chinese immigrants and twenty-nine percent of Korean immigrants are in or near poverty. The figure for Mexicans is sixty-two percent, for El Salvadorans fifty-eight percent.

Thirteen percent of Chinese and eight percent of Koreans use some form of welfare compared to twenty-nine percent of Mexicans and twenty-six percent of El Salvadorans. Thirty percent of Chinese and thirty-four percent of Koreans are without health insurance. The figure for Mexicans is fifty-three percent, for El Salvadorans fifty-seven percent.

The 1990 census data show that forty-five percent of Chinese and forty-one percent of Korean immigrants had naturalized. The figure for Mexicans who had become citizens was twenty-three percent, for El Salvadorans fifteen percent.

The acculturation and upward mobility of the East Asian immigrants is impressive. In education, income, and professional achievement, they substantially exceed national averages; and their trajectory is reminiscent of that of Jewish immigrants. A coincidental example is the disproportionate presence of East Asian musicians in symphony orchestras. I believe that our nation has benefitted from the immigration of the Confucian Asians.

There is a variation in the performance of Latin American immigrants. Those from Cuba and South America, generally better educated, have done better than those from Mexico and Central America. But the Latin American averages for education, income, and professional achievement, dominated by the heavy Mexican component, are well below our national averages.


Where does this leave us? It is unlikely that we will ever again discriminate on the basis of national origin in our immigration policies. This is particularly true with respect to Hispanics, whose numbers will soon exceed those of African-Americans and who are being wooed by both political parties.

The best hope for future immigration patterns that will be more beneficial to our society, and particularly our poorest citizens, many of whom are Hispanic, is an immigration policy along the line of the Jordan Commission recommendations: emphasis on education and skills and a redoubled effort to reduce illegal immigration.

About the author

Lawrence E. Harrison is currently teaching and doing research at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He presented this report at the Twenty-Fifth Social Contract Writers Workshop, October 21, 2001. He is co-editor with Samuel Huntington of Culture Matters (Basic Books, 2000).

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