Mexicans most 'successful' US immigrants: new study says

Updated: 2014-03-17 05:13

By CHRIS DAVIS in New York (China Daily Latin America)

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Mexican immigrants may rank lowest in income and education of all of Los Angeles' immigrant groups, but they are still the most successful, according to a new study from the Russell Sage Foundation, which argues that when measuring success, it all depends on where you put the starting line.

The conventional take on the American Dream is probably best depicted by Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld's new book The Triple Package. In that world view, the most successful second-generation immigrants are those with the biggest house, the fanciest car, the most advanced degrees on the wall and the highest-paying job.

By these objective standards, certain immigrant groups — particularly Chinese, Jews, Nigerians, Indians, Cubans, Iranians, Lebanese and Mormons — do best, and The Triple Package argues that it's because they share certain cultural traits that give them a motivational edge.

The new study by UCLA sociologist Min Zhou and UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee flies in the face of those notions by widening the frame of the lens used to view success and finding that Mexican immigrants — who rank lowest in education and income achievement —have actually come the farthest.

Lee and Zhou interviewed Chinese-, Vietnamese- and Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles whose parents moved here from their home countries to find out how they felt about success and who they measured their success against.

"One of the interesting things we found is that the Chinese exhibited the most successful outcomes, but they were the least likely to feel successful, in part because they measured their success against such high-achieving co-ethnics, other Chinese who have achieved extraordinary outcomes. And they're also measuring their success against their parents and their parents are often highly educated," Lee said.

"So if your father had a PhD and you only received a BA degree or a master's, you might not feel as successful because by comparison you haven't achieved as much," she added.

Lee remembers interviewing one very successful Chinese female entrepreneur who owned her home in a swanky neighborhood in LA. "I think most Americans would see her as successful, yet when we asked her, 'Do you feel successful?' she said she didn't because she didn't have a master's degree and her parents and all of her friends had at least a master's degree," Lee said.

But when they asked her if she felt successful in relation to other white Americans or her non-Chinese friends, "she paused as if she had never thought to make that comparison before, and said, 'Well compared to them, yes'."

"That revealed to me that she's really measuring success against this really high bar," said Lee.

Their study found that 64 percent of Chinese immigrants' children graduated from college, and of those, 22 percent went on to get a graduate degree.

"These figures are impressive but not surprising," Lee said. "In Los Angeles, over 60 percent of Chinese immigrant fathers and 40 percent of mothers have a bachelor's degree or higher. In turn, their children benefit from their parents' human and financial capital, giving them a boost in their quest to get ahead."

By way of contrast, only 17 percent of children of Mexican immigrants graduated from college, but their high-school graduation rate was double that of their parents'.

Among the Mexicans interviewed, even though they were the least successful in terms of the objective financial and academic indicators, "they felt the most successful because they measured their success inter-generationally. They understood how far they came from their parent's generation", Lee said.

Many of the Mexicans' parents had only an elementary school education. "We were interviewing people who had graduated from college and were teachers, people who owned their own gardening businesses that they were expanding from their parents. They felt enormously successful because they understood how far they came from their parents, many of whom worked in minimum wage jobs without benefits or any type of security," Lee said.

"Success cannot be boiled down to the supposed cultural traits and values," Lee said. "All groups value success. All groups value education. However, institutional and structural factors like immigration status (especially undocumented status), access to economic and social capital, and the educational backgrounds of immigrant parents determine the opportunities that a child may or may not have."

The children of Chinese and Mexican immigrants start their quest for mobility from different points. "This is not to say that the children of Chinese immigrants don't work hard; my research shows that they work very hard, indeed," Lee said. "However, most start far ahead of their Mexican peers. For the children of Mexican immigrants to break through these barriers and graduate from high school or college is an enormous feat, and an enormous jump in mobility," Lee said.

Lee used a baseball analogy to illustrate her point. Most Americans, she said, would be more impressed by someone who made it from the batter's box to second base than someone who was on third base because their parents started on third base. "But because we tend to focus strictly on outcomes when we talk about success and mobility, we fail to acknowledge that the third base runner didn't have to run very far at all," Lee said.

"Anyone who thinks the American Dream is about the end rewards is missing the point," she writes. "It's always been about the striving."