The Myth of Imported Immigrant Success
By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania
If I had a dollar for every time I heard people claim that Asian immigrants do well because they migrate with the human capital to succeed, I’d be able to…do many things.
A common sociological explanation for economic inequality between Asian immigrants and “native born minorities,” the importation thesis posits that the “development” of third world countries and policy dictates for skilled and educated labor have resulted in imported success. In other words, immigrants come in with more human capital and thus are able to effectively compete against and sometimes economically surpass other racial groups.
Whereas biological and cultural explanations focus on ethnic group characteristics as facilitators of success or failure, the importation thesis is preoccupied with the selectivity of immigration policy that has diversified the types of migrants the U.S. recruits and receives. Emphasizing the landmark 1965 Immigration Act, which set in motion the increased immigration of ethnicities previously restricted from entry or naturalization, scholars have refocused our attention on the state’s role in shaping contemporary economic inequality between racial groups.
Nevertheless, there are limitations to this approach. First, we can’t simply discuss aspects of immigration policy that favor skills because the majority of post-1965 permanent residents come in under family provisions and therefore don’t necessarily meet skill requirements. Immigration scholars know this and thus many look to other factors to explain economic assimilation. One is what sociologists Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut label the “contexts of reception,” which involves “the kind of community created by [their] co-nationals.” However, unless we explicitly trace how the state collaborates with ethnic institutions, we end up coming back to what’s presumably particular about ethnic groups—as if ethnic contexts flourish outside the purview of the state. In the process, we ignore the ways state institutions assist immigrants in their quest for socioeconomic mobility after arrival, albeit to differing degrees.
While conducting my dissertation research on Korean banks’ and U.S. federal government agencies’ contributions to Korean immigrant entrepreneurship, I became more familiar with such efforts. They involved collaborations between Korean banks, non-profits, and federal government organizations, including the Small Business Administration, the Minority Business Development Agency, the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—the only White House commission at the time dedicated to economic development among non-whites (Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans had commissions focusing on educational opportunities)—and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
Korean immigrants aren’t the only ones receiving institutional support. There are multiple projects sponsored by government institutions to economically incorporate immigrants of many backgrounds. For example, the FDIC sponsors a Money Smart program that targets language groups for financial literacy; along with English, the program is offered in Spanish, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian.
Additionally—and not addressed in my dissertation—mortgage loans are now available to undocumented immigrants, an opportunity that involves using an Income Tax Identification Number (ITIN), which is issued by the Internal Revenue Service when people are ineligible for a social security number. American banks and credit unions began issuing “ITIN mortgages” to undocumented immigrants in 2003. While increasingly difficult to get due to the current financial crisis and political hostility toward illegal immigrants, Kevin Mukri, a spokesperson for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, housed under the Department of Treasury, defends ITIN mortgages. As he puts it, “Banks are not an arm of the immigration department…As long as those getting mortgages meet the requirements of being authorized bank customers, including proper ID, it would be discriminatory not to service them.”
While I don’t propose further policing of immigrant economic activity (it’s already policed), the state’s willingness to turn a blind eye to such financial transactions, coupled with proactive measures taken by government institutions to economically incorporate post-1965 immigrants, suggests that more than human capital and the ethnic contexts of reception are at play.
Finally, the importation thesis reproduces the racist myth of white entitlement. By emphasizing how immigration policies from 1965 onwards have favored skilled immigrants, we inadvertently suggest that post-1965 immigrants—code for immigrants of color—have a competitive edge over earlier waves of white immigrants. Thus, we promote the idea that earlier waves of white immigrants really did earn everything all by themselves. Despite the valorization of the European indentured servant, peasant, farmer, domestic, or seamstress as relying solely on hard work, perseverance, discipline, and hope, we need to remember that immigration has always been a state selective process and that “unskilled” white immigrants legally entered the United States, experienced upward social mobility, and were actively assisted in their trajectories by the state. While we rightfully draw from W.E.B. Du Bois’ “psychological wage” concept to help interpret white immigrants’ racist political choices, we can’t pretend that earlier white immigrants were only psychologically compensated. As law scholar Hiroshi Motomura describes in Americans in Waiting, white immigrants got theirs. For example, from 1795 to 1952, “every applicant for naturalization had to file a declaration of intent several years in advance.” At different periods, these “intending citizens,” overwhelmingly white, accessed tangible opportunities that helped facilitate economic assimilation, including land grants under the 1862 Homestead Act and the right to vote.
While the implications of immigration acts from 1965 onward require exploration, we need to consider how the state actively promoted and promotes immigrant economic assimilation after arrival. To ignore this reality is to reproduce myths about human capital that impact how we address economic disparities between ethnic and racial groups, some of whom may not be immigrants.
Sociologist Niki T. Dickerson speaks to this point and deserves to be quoted at length. She states, “Conventional explanations of racial inequality in academia and public policy have typically focused on racial disparities in human capital as the primary explanation for persistent racial economic inequality, and consequently we have invested substantial societal resources to eradicate differences in education. However, even though the human capital gap between blacks and whites has closed substantially over the past 30 years, commensurate earnings, unemployment rates, and occupational status have not.”