Second Generation Immigrants

Operational Unit: CUNY Data Service

Authors: Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway

UPDATE: The results of our decade-long study of the immigrant second-generation in New York described below were published in May 2008 by Harvard University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation.  The book is titled Inheriting the City: Children of Immigrants Come of Age.

Study Design

  1. A random sample telephone survey of 3,615 respondents from five second generation and three native born groups who live in New York City and the inner suburbs in New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island.  A supplemental sample of 557 respondents in the outer suburbs was also collected.
  2. In-person, in-depth, follow-up interviews with 333 of the survey respondents.
  3. Seven ethnographies of strategically located sites where second generation and native born minority young people interact.

The Population

Young adults aged 18-32 who were born in the U.S. to parents who immigrated after 1965 (the second generation) or who were born abroad but arrived the U.S. by age 12 and grew up in the US (the "1.5 generation")

Immigrant Groups:

  • West Indians (including Guyanese but not Haitians)

  • Dominicans

  • Chinese (including those whose parents came from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese)

  • South Americans: Colombians, Ecuadorans, Peruvians

  • Jews from the former Soviet Union

Native Groups:

  • Whites

  • Blacks

  • Puerto Ricans


The lower age limit of 18 is the practical minimum for leaving school and entering the labor force, while 32 as the oldest a native child of  post-1965 immigrants could have been in the fall of 1998, when the study began.

Significance of the study

The study provides reliable data to answer the central questions about what is happening to the children of the huge wave of current immigration, what strategies they are adopting toward, school, work, family, and social identity, and how they are facing issues like social disadvantage, prejudice, discrimination, and inter-group competition.  The fate of the new second generation will influence not only the health of individuals and communities, but what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century.

Study Design

The study analyzes the forces leading to or impeding the assimilation of a 18-32 year olds from immigrant backgrounds that vary in terms of race, language, and the mix of skills and liabilities their parents brought to the United States.  To make sure that what we find derives specifically from the immigrant experience, rather than simply being a young person in New York, we are also studying a “control group” of people from native born white, black, and Puerto Rican backgrounds.  The main sample is drawn from the inner part of the region where the vast majority of immigrants and native born minority group members live and grow up.

Our study groups make possible a number of interesting comparisons.  Unlike many other immigrant groups, the West Indian first generation speaks English, but the dominant society racially classifies them as black.  We are interested in ways that their experiences resemble or differ from native born African Americans.  Dominicans and the Colombian-Peruvian-Ecuadoran population both speak Spanish, but live in different parts of New York, have different class backgrounds prior to immigration, and, quite often, different skin tones.  We have compared them to Puerto Rican young people, who, along with their parents, have the benefit of citizenship.  Chinese immigrants from the mainland tend to have little education, while young people with overseas Chinese parents come from families with higher incomes, more education, and more English fluency.

According to the 1990 Census, the base year for looking at the first generation parents, these five groups accounted for 45 percent of the immigrants who had arrived in metropolitan New York since 1970.  Our ability to compare these groups with native born whites, blacks and Puerto Ricans has permitted us to analyze the effects of nativity while controlling for race and language background.

The project began with a pilot study in July 1996.  Survey data collection took place in 1999 and 2000.  The first round of in-depth interviews took place in the same time frame, as did the ethnographic studies.  A second round of in-depth interviews took place in 2002 and 2003, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001. 


The ethnographic component of our research involves participant observation studies that supplement data on what respondents say with observations of what they actually do.   After a national competition, we selected seven highly qualified Investigators.  They were:

  • Robert Adams (trained in anthropology at the University of Texas), relations between African-American, Haitian, and West Indian students within a CUNY senior college.

  • Karen Chai (trained in sociology at Harvard University), Chinese and Korean participation in student Christian fellowships at two local universities.

  • Amy Foerster (trained in sociology at Cornell University),  relations between first and second generation immigrant and native minority members within a labor union representing workers in a service industry with significant immigrant participation.

  • Victoria Malkin (trained in social Anthropology at the University College London), relations between second generation and native minority workers in tow entry-level retail work sites.

  • Nicole Marwell (trained in sociology at the University of Chicago), political organization among second generation young people, native minorities, and white ethnic elites in two neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

  • Dae Young Kim (trained in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center), to replicate our survey among second generation Korean-Americans using a distinctive last name sampling methodology.

  • Alex Trillo (trained in sociology at SUNY Stony Brook), the forging of a pan-ethnic Latino youth culture in a CUNY community college.

Research Results

The Inter-University Consortium of Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan will soon release gators a public use data set from the telephone interviews.  A volume reporting the ethnographic work, Becoming New Yorkers:  Ethnographies of the New Second Generation, edited by Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, and Mary Waters, was published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2004 and received an honorable mention for the Robert Park Award of the American Sociological Association.  Inheriting the City:  The Children of Immigrants Come of Age, authored by Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway, was co-published by Harvard University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation in May 2008.  It has won the Mirra Komarovsky Award of the Eastern Sociological Society for the best book in sociology in 2008, the Thomas and Znaniecki award of the International Migration Section of the American Sociological Association in 2009, and the 2010 Distinguished Book Award of the ASA.


Russell Sage Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), and the UJA-Federation.


John H. Mollenkopf, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and director of the Center for Urban Research. 

Philip Kasinitz, Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College, writes on immigration, race, ethnicity, and urbanism. Most of his work has been on New York City. He is the author of Caribbean New York (winner of the 1996 American Sociological Association Thomas and Znaniecki Award), editor of Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Time, and co-editor of the Russell Sage Foundation’s forthcoming Handbook of Immigration.   He recently completed an ethnographic study of poverty and urban space in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. He has consulted to the Regional Plan Association, was a Visiting Scholar at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, and is President-elect of the ASA's Section on International Migration. He received his B.A. from Boston University and his PhD from New York University.

Mary C. Waters, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, is the author of two books and numerous articles on racial and ethnic identity and immigrant assimilation. She recently completed Black Identities, a study of first and second generation West Indian immigrants in New York City that combined in-depth interviews with ethnographic observation in neighborhood high schools and workplaces. She has consulted to the Census Bureau on issues of measurement of race and ethnicity and was a member of the Panel on the Economic and Demographic Impacts of Immigration on the United States of the National Academy of Sciences. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, and is a member of the International Immigration Committee of the Social Science Research Council. She received a B.A. in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. in Demography, and an M.A. and PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley.