Press Release: Inheriting the City: the Children of Immigrants Come of Age

Much has been said about America’s new immigrants, yet what do we know about the sort of Americans they and their children are now becoming? For more than a decade, researchers at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research have conducted the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of second-generation immigrants in New York City. The study examines their experiences growing up, their education, entry into the work force, their social and political lives, and how they establish their own families. The results will be released in mid-May as a book, Inheriting the City: the Children of Immigrants Come of Age (Harvard University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation), by Graduate Center Professors John Mollenkopf and Philip Kasinitz, Mary Waters from Harvard, and Jennifer Holdaway of the Social Science Research Council.

Inheriting the City focuses on 18- to 32-year-old offspring of Dominican, West Indian, South American, Chinese, and Russian-Jewish immigrants, now living in the New York Metropolitan area. Each group is intensively examined and compared through information gleaned from a combination of 3,415 lengthy telephone surveys and 333 open-ended follow-up interviews. The book asks whether or not immigrants’ children are achieving the better life their parents sought in coming to America. The answer is not simply a matter of how much second-generation immigrants have “assimilated,” but also an exploration of just what assimilation means in today’s America.

Since more than half of the population of New York are immigrants or children of immigrants, “How,” the authors ask, “does one define ‘mainstream’ in a truly multicultural city?”  

Through a combination of statistical comparisons, telling interviews and finely grained qualitative analysis, the authors identify and explore the myriad complexities of their subjects’ lives in the context of their own individual and family experiences, their national origins, other contemporary immigrant groups, native New Yorkers, and the waves of preceding immigrant groups. 

Sample findings shared among second-generation groups:

The children of immigrants are overwhelmingly fluent in English.  

All second-generation groups fare better on average than either their immigrant parents or the members of native-born minority groups in terms of high school and college graduation.  Dominicans -- the group with the lowest educational attainment -- still fared better than native Blacks or Puerto Ricans. Chinese and Russians fared better than native Whites.

The children of immigrants are less occupationally segregated than their  immigrant parents.

Earnings… All second-generation groups earn more than native African-American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers their age. The Russian-Jewish and Chinese second generation earns as much as comparable native Whites.

Members of all second-generation groups are less likely to have been arrested than are native African Americans and Puerto Ricans. South Americans, Dominicans and West Indians have arrest rates comparable to those of native Whites; those for Russian Jews and Chinese are far lower.  

Friends and family…   
In many cases, the “social capital” -- the network of friends and extended family who share the same immigrant origins -- plays a role in keeping the second generation out of trouble, even among individually disadvantaged families.

Members of all second-generation groups live with their parents longer than do natives, regardless of race. They generally report greater comfort with multigenerational living and are less likely to regard leaving their parents’ homes as part of the transition to adulthood. This turns out to be a significant advantage in the New York housing market.

Role of women…
Among the things the second generation likes about the United States is what most perceive as greater freedom for the women, compared to their parents’ home countries.

In almost all groups, women outperform men in school, although men continue to earn more.

Taking root…
The second generation is here to stay. While Dominicans, South Americans, and West Indians retained far stronger ties to their home countries than Chinese or Russian Jews, in no case does a significant portion of any second-generation group plan to return to live in their parents’ home country. All have far fewer personal and financial ties there than do their immigrant parents.    

Interest in and involvement in home country politics did not reduce interest and involvement in civic affairs in New York.   

Sample findings of differences between second-generation groups:

Disadvantaged circumstances…
Dominicans, the largest immigrant group in the city, are also the most disadvantaged in both the first generation and second generation. 

Chinese immigrants often arrive with little education or knowledge of English, yet their children have generally overcome those limitations through high labor-force participation, two-parent and extended families, and unusual class diversity within the community.  

Like African Americans, West Indians report high levels of racial discrimination, particularly from the police. Many grew up in single-parent households. Yet in part due to the support of multigeneration families, many own homes and have experienced considerable upward mobility.

Parental presence…
The larger number of adults pooling household income and sharing child rearing in many immigrant families played an important role in second-generation success. More than two thirds of the South Americans, Russian Jews, and Chinese grew up in two-parent households; somewhat more than half of the West Indians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans did; and less than half of the native Blacks did.   Yet among West Indians, single-parent families had a somewhat less negative effect than among native Blacks, perhaps due to larger number of adults available to support the household efforts.  

Forming families…
Family life varies considerably among the second-generation groups. The Chinese have the lowest percentage that are married or cohabitating, Dominicans the largest. South Americans are the most likely to marry outside their own group, native Whites and Chinese least likely.  Chinese and native Whites also postpone marrying and having children the longest.  There are more single parents among native Blacks, West Indians, and Puerto Ricans, while Dominicans and South Americans tend to marry young.

Civic engagement…
Of the immigrant second-generation groups, West Indians were most likely to vote and be engaged with New York’s civic life. The Chinese and Russian Jews, the least likely, despite generally being better educated and better off financially.

Civic support..
Many of the children of West Indian and Latino immigrants have been assisted by policies, programs, and institutions originally designed to benefit members of native minority groups.

In many areas of life, today’s second generation is choosing between traditional and “Americanized” ways. They differ from prior immigrant generations in that they have more pride in their own biculturalism, keeping some elements and discarding others as they go along. Yet this biculturalism in no way prevents their joining the “mainstream.” Indeed, in their cultural, economic, and social activities, the children of immigrants increasingly are the mainstream among young adult New Yorkers.

The authors:

Philip Kasinitz is Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College. He serves as Executive Officer of the Graduate Center’s Doctoral Program in Sociology, and as Associate Director of the Center for Urban Resarch. His previous books include Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race and Becoming New Yorkers, which he edited with Mollenkopf and Waters.

John Mollenkopf is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center, where also directs the Center for Urban Research and coordinates the interdisciplinary concentration in public policy and urban studies. He has written or edited thirteen books on urban politics, urban policy, immigration, and New York City, and has served as a consultant to many New York City public agencies.

Mary C. Waters is the M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.  She is the author or editor of  numerous books and articles on immigration and race and ethnic identity, including the prize-winning book, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities, and, most recently, The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965.

Jennifer Holdaway is Program Director for the Migration Program at the Social Science Research Council, and also represents the SSRC on projects related to China.  She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center, where she worked at the Center for Urban Research on this study, managing research.  She has lived in Taiwan and China, where she worked on European Union development projects.

Working with Graduate Center faculty and students, the Center for Urban Research organizes basic research on the critical issues that face New York and other large cities in the U.S. and abroad; collaborates on applied research with public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other partners; and holds forums about urban research for the media, foundations, community organizations, and others.

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to more than thirty interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns.  Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, the Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events.  Further information on the Graduate Center and its programs can be found at

Submitted on: MAY 1, 2008

Category: Press Room