How Immigration Changed U.S. Society

February 16, 2022

In her new book, “One Quarter of the Nation,” Professor Nancy Foner examines the ways that immigrants have shaped U.S. culture and society.

Nancy Foner Book One Quarter of the Nation
Nancy Foner and her book “One Quarter of the Nation: Immigration and the Transformation of America”

“Immigration’s impact on this country has become so much a part of daily life that we sometimes fail to see it,” says Distinguished Professor Nancy Foner (GC/Hunter, Sociology). Sociologists typically focus on the impact of immigration on the lives of immigrants. Her latest book, One Quarter of the Nation: Immigration and the Transformation of America, takes a different approach, examining the ways that immigrants have transformed U.S. culture and society.

By 2020 an unprecedented 45 million immigrants were living in the U.S., the largest number since census records have been kept, Foner notes. Together with their U.S.-born children, they totaled  nearly 86 million people, or more than one quarter of the U.S. population. Foner recently discussed her book at a panel discussion at the Graduate Center as part of the Immigration Seminar Series. Following are excerpts of her remarks.

How immigration has led to racial shifts in the U.S. population:

Few things have changed this country’s racial picture more conspicuously than the last 50 years of immigration. For much of the 20th century, race was mainly a matter of Black and white. If we go back to 1960, fully 85% of Americans were white. When most Americans thought of minorities then, they had Black people in mind.

Immigration has not only created a new demographic reality but also altered how Americans think about race. East Asians have become the model minority, even though, as spiking hate crimes during the pandemic remind us, they are still subject to racial prejudice and discrimination. Immigration has changed the very words we use to talk about race. The category Hispanic is a modern-day invention, rarely used 50 years ago, and is now an established category of identity among non-Hispanics as well as many with origins in Latin America (along with the terms Latino and, most recently, Latinx). 

The impact of immigration on electoral politics:

Immigrant-origin voters have helped transform both the Democratic and Republican electoral coalitions. As late as 1980, more whites in the U.S. identified as Democrats than as Republicans. By 2010, it was the reverse: White Republicans substantially outnumbered white Democrats. At the same time, the Democratic Party has increasingly become a party supported by non-whites. By 2019, according to a Pew survey, racial minorities made up 40% of registered voters who identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party. 

Immigration has been pivotal in these changes. On one side, it has been critical in the large growth in the share of minority registered voters in the national electorate (from 15% to 30% between 1996 and 2019) and they’ve trended Democratic. On the other side, many whites, especially non-college-educated whites, have been drawn to the Republican Party and its anti-immigrant and anti-minority appeals, motivated, in part, by anxiety, fears, and resentment that millions of overwhelmingly non-white newcomers will undermine the basic identity of the nation and marginalize and disadvantage whites.

Positive changes in cities, rural areas, and the national economy:

On the whole, immigration has brought enormous benefits as it has created far-reaching changes, something evident when we look at cities and towns around the country. Immigrants by their sheer numbers have provided a lifeline in many cities that were losing population; played a key role in the growth of places like Las Vegas and Orlando that were becoming major metropolitan areas for the first time; and revitalized many far-flung rural communities, slowing population loss and in some cases enabling the population to grow. In many central cities, immigration helped deteriorating neighborhoods make a comeback by lifting population and spurring economic growth; and immigration was a factor behind the decline in violent crime in urban America from the late 1990s and into the early 2000s.

When it comes to the economy, immigration has fostered innovation, fueled growth, and helped to shape the development of whole industries. Immigrants practically invented Silicon Valley. They’ve had an outsize role in high-tech, now one of the national economy’s largest components, starting and running major new companies and spearheading innovations in them — think Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin, or eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, born in France to Iranian migrant parents. In 2018, over half of the 91 U.S. startup companies valued at $1 billion or more had at least one immigrant founder; more than 80% of these companies employed immigrants in key management or product development roles, commonly as chief technology officers and vice presidents of engineering.

Nationwide, one in five business owners in 2014 were immigrants, and they founded about a quarter of new firms. Immigrants have helped any number of service industries grow and flourish, filling essential roles at every occupational level, from picking crops to repairing houses, and have reduced shortages in medical and health care professions: 28% of the nation’s physicians and surgeons and 16% of the registered nurses are immigrants. Because the millions of immigrants themselves use services and consume goods, they’ve boosted the economy and job growth, including in an array of public-service jobs.  

Have immigrants hurt native workers? Overall, not much. Because immigrants increase demand for goods and services — and also because immigrant small firms and startups often generate opportunities for native-born workers and because highly educated immigrants boost local productivity — the consensus among economists is that immigration’s adverse effects on U.S.-born workers’ wages and employment have, overall, been minimal.

How immigrants are broadening U.S. culture:

Immigrants are invigorating — and indeed remaking — what we think of as our uniquely American culture: the foods we eat, the music we listen to, the films we watch, the books we read. If earlier Jewish and Italian immigrants brought us bagels and pizza, salsa today outsells ketchup and tacos are standard fare. In 2015, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. outnumbered all the McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Kentucky Fried Chickens combined, and now include a broad range of regional dishes and flavors. Immigrants and the second generation are new authors on bestseller lists. Not only do the writers highlight perennial immigrant themes, such as adjusting to American society and culture, but also contemporary issues such as undocumented status.

The same goes for films and TV programs with immigrant and second-generation stars, writers, and producers. Immigrants and the second generation have taken popular music in new directions. Pop music superstars with roots in Latin America have brought Latin rhythms, fused with American popular music, to mainstream audiences. At one and the same time, immigrants and the U.S.-born second generation have broadened mainstream American culture while also creating new mixtures that blend aspects of American and immigrant cultures.

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