Most migrants make the trip for the opportunity to work. The decision is an economic, not moral one. And like any group, today’s newcomers are a mixed bunch, with good and bad apples among them.
But migration is also a winnowing experience. Those who end up staying in the U.S. despite the hardships are a self-selecting few. Among the qualities that distinguish them are their pluck and determination.
Immigrants work harder than native-born Americans. In 2006, before the economic downturn, when 66 percent of native-born men were working or actively looking for work, the rate for males from Mexico was 88 percent, and that for Mexican men in the U.S. illegally was 94 percent. Immigrants also worked longer hours: at the height of the boom, a typical low-skilled immigrant’s work week was a stunning 56 percent longer than a typical low-skilled native’s.
Newcomers rely less on government benefits. Not even legal immigrants are eligible for federal welfare programs in their first five years in the U.S., and illegal immigrants are ineligible for handouts of any kind. Even when U.S.-born children qualify families for the program most people think of as welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, only 1 percent of immigrant-headed households avail themselves, compared to 5 percent of households headed by U.S. citizens.
Migrants are risk-takers by definition, and uprooted, hungry people are always going to be scrappier than settled folks. Remember the immigrant workers rushing to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina for cleanup and construction jobs. We shouldn’t be romantic about this: the jobs immigrants do are often dirty and dangerous, and their eagerness to work under any conditions makes it all too easy for some employers to exploit them. But their drive pays off, both for them and for us, and at both the low and high ends of the economic ladder.
By the third generation, ironically, this determination falls off as immigrant families assimilate to America’s far less driven norms. So it has always been, since Ellis Island and before. The good news: by the time the drive gives out, there is another wave of newcomers waiting in the wings, attracted by the beacon that is America and ready to test their spirit in a country they don’t know.
Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA.