The Misuse Of The Terms “First Generation Immigrants” And “Second Generation Immigrants”

The immigrant population in the US has over the years been the focus of studies by Social Scientists as they try to define immigrants and study their adaptation and progress in the US.The number of foreign-born residents has been growing rapidly and according to the US Census Bureau their number is 13% of the population (or 40 million out of over 300 million) the largest number since 1920 (Foreign Born Population in US 2010 – New American).Social Scientists define immigrants in terms of the generation in which they belong (called generation labelling). It is out of this that the terms first and second generation immigrants have emerged.THE TRADITIONAL MODELThe term “first generation immigrants” has traditionally referred to foreign-born residents i.e. people from abroad who come to the US to reside permanently. And when Social Scientists use the term “second generation immigrants” they refer to US born children of first generation immigrants.The problem with these terms is that they are self-contradictory, ambiguous and lead to absurdities.”FIRST GENERATION IMMIGRANTS”This term can cause ambiguity. For example if a foreign couple with a child migrate to the US, the child according to the traditional definition does not classify as a second generation immigrant since the child was not born here and so we have the absurdity that two generations of a family would classify as first generation immigrants.Another criticism of this definition is that it does not take into account the fact that many foreign-born residents change their legal status and become Americans. In such a situation it is absurd to refer to this group as first generation immigrants instead of simply Americans.As regards those foreign-born residents who retain the citizenship of their former homeland they get swept up in the process of the “melting pot”. America is known as a melting pot in the sense that people of different cultures assimilate into one nation with a common culture.It is confusing to refer to culturally assimilated people with terms that put them in the category of an immigrant population.It is different in other countries like France and Great Britain which is home to a lot of non-Western immigrants who retain their native culture and are permanently unassimilated immigrants.In these countries the traditional terms correctly describe the cultural identity of an immigrant population.”SECOND GENERATION IMMIGRANTS”This description is self-contradictory since a second generation immigrant is legally not an immigrant at all but was born here and is an American.Another contradiction associated with generation labelling concerns the subclassification of the term second generation immigrants into two subgroups, namely:(a) those with 1 foreign parent and 1 US born parent (called the 2.5 generation), and
(b) those with no US born parents (called the 2.0 generation).Research has shown that there are differences between the two subgroups as follows:First – the 2.5 generation accounts for a large proportion of children of immigrants.Second- there are differences in socio economic outcomes of the two subgroups. Native born parents afford children a greater chance of higher education and more success in the mainstream economy; andThird- the 2.5 generation varies from the 2.0 generation in age structure, racial identity, education attainment and income.Because of the vast differences between the two subgroups it is argued that the 2.5 generation should be analyzed separately and should not be considered as a part of the same group as the 2.0 generation (see S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Second Generation Immigrants? The 2.5 Generation – The US. Social Science Quarterly, January 2012).AN ALTERNATIVE MODELSome critics say that it is a mistake to refer to immigrants as defined in the traditional way.According to them the people who migrate to the US should be considered as “immigrants” and the term first generation immigrants should refer to the first generation born here.They criticize the traditional definitions as condemning people to perpetual immigrant status.So if generation labelling were applied to George Washington and his ancestors, John Washington (1630-1677) who came from England and settled in Virginia in 1656 would be a first generation immigrant. John’s son Lawrence Washington (1659 – 1698) would be a second generation immigrant. Lawrence’s son, Augustine Washington (1695 – 1743) would be a third generation immigrant. And Augustine’s son, George Washington (1732 – 1799) would be a fourth generation immigrant.This misuse of language turns everyone into an immigrant and supports the false idea that we are a “nation of immigrants”. (see Lawrence Auster, July 12, 2007, View From The Right, The Correct Meaning Of “first generation” and “second generation”).My criticism of this model is that it wrongly characterizes the legal status of children who are born here as immigrants and it fails to account for those immigrants who change their legal status and become Americans.CONCLUSIONThe conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that generation labelling in the style that is used today is unsatisfactory and should be removed from our lexicon and usage.In the context of the US, my suggestion is that sociology should follow the law. This means that people who come to the US to live permanently should be called Permanent Residents. Their children who are born here should be referred to according to their legal status i.e. Americans.Permanent Residents who change their legal status and become citizens should be called Americans just like those who are born here.This model is simple and free of the faults of the other models.Victor A. Dixon
July 21, 2013