E.g., 07/29/2014
E.g., 07/29/2014

The New Immigrant Survey in the U.S.: The Experience over Time

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The New Immigrant Survey in the U.S.: The Experience over Time

Immigration affects American society in profound ways. Yet in perhaps no other area of social science and public policy research has there been as large a gap between information needs and existing data. Consequently, many fundamental questions remain unanswered. These include the following: How does the health and well-being of immigrants compare to that of the native born? How many immigrants return to their home country? What is the relationship between legal and illegal immigration? What are the contributions and costs of immigrants to the economy? What are the factors affecting the assimilation of immigrants and their children? What are the achievements of, and burdens imposed by, immigrant children and the children of immigrants?

Embedded in immigration questions are further questions that run the gamut of human experience, from processes of language acquisition to identity formation, to achievement of excellence and development of civic virtue.

Lawful Permanent Residents in the United States
Lawful permanent residents are foreign-born persons who have been granted the right to live permanently in the United States. Such immigrants may obtain legal permanent residence in the U.S. by qualifying for a family-sponsored or employment-based immigrant visa or by adjusting from temporary refugee and asylee visas. Permanent residence may also be acquired through the diversity visa lottery program, which allots additional immigration visas to countries that are strongly underrepresented in U.S. immigration streams.

The New Immigrant Survey is a new plan for nationally representative, longitudinal studies of immigrants and their children that promises to provide new kinds of data that will help answer many of the important questions about immigration and concomitantly shed light on basic aspects of human development. An early pilot already shows promising results.

A New Plan for Better Immigration Data

For over 20 years, successive panels assembled in both the public and private sectors -- e.g., panels of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, the Rockefeller Foundation -- have agreed on the best option for remedying the immigration-data situation in order to substantially advance understanding of the socioeconomic status of immigrants and their children and the effects of immigration in the United States. The New Immigrant Survey (NIS) addresses this challenge by using the administrative records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to draw large samples from new cohorts of lawful permanent residents (LPRs -- see box above). Roughly 11,000 immigrants will be interviewed immediately after admission to permanent residence status and re-interviewed periodically thereafter; information will also be obtained about and from their spouses as well as their children, both the immigrant children they bring with them and the U.S. citizen children born to them in the United States.

NIS Content. NIS survey instruments will obtain information on a variety of topics, including health, schooling, marriage and family, skills, languages and English language skills, labor force participation, earnings, use of government services, networks, travel, and religion. In successive rounds, the instruments will track changes over time. Importantly, the NIS design will allow for comparability with other major U.S. longitudinal surveys, such as the National Longitudinal Surveys and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, thus facilitating comparisons of immigrants and the native born. Special attention will be paid to immigrant children and the children of immigrants, including assessment of their academic abilities, skills, and achievements. As well, the instruments will seek immigrants' ideas about the migration process, including assessment of the helpfulness of various sources of information.

NIS Interview Language. A basic principle of the New Immigrant Survey is that every respondent is interviewed in the language of his or her choice; this could be English or any of the world's languages. Using immigrants' preferred languages increases response rate and data quality but also requires substantial resources for instrument translation and bilingual interviewers.

NIS Pilot. Because the NIS design, with its rather complex sampling, geographic, and language elements, had never been tried before, a pilot -- the NIS-P -- was carried out in 1996, with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The pilot confirmed the soundness of the design, highlighted the importance of contacting sampled immigrants immediately after admission to permanent residence, and provided new information on immigrants never before available (discussed below).

First NIS Cohort

First NIS Cohort -- NIS 2003 Cohort. The first NIS cohort, not counting the pilot cohort, will be surveyed in 2003. The design calls for selection of two samples: (1) an Adult Sample consisting of 10,000 immigrants newly admitted to legal permanent residence, oversampling employment-based and diversity immigrants and undersampling spouses of U.S. citizens, and (2) a Child Sample consisting of 1,000 children in two categories which would not be found in the households of immigrants in the Adult Sample, namely, minor children of U.S. citizens and adopted orphans.

Languages in the NIS 2003 Cohort. Languages for the NIS 2003 cohort are based on the anticipated origin-country distribution along with language results from the pilot. The survey instruments will be available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. In addition, key concepts will be translated into seven additional languages: Arabic, Farsi, French, Gujarati, Hindi/Urdu, Serbo-Croatian, and Ukrainian. Bilingual interviewers and/or interpreters will be used for all non-English languages preferred by respondents.

Future Survey Rounds for the NIS 2003 Cohort. Plans call for periodic re-interviews, initially every year, of sampled immigrants and their children, eventually including spin-off households as the children grow up and start families of their own.

Some Findings from the NIS-Pilot FY 1996 Cohort Sample

Schooling of New Legal Immigrants. New legal immigrants, with average schooling of 12.7 years, are as well schooled as the native-born and better schooled by one year than the larger set of foreign born surveyed in the Census and CPS (see related Source article ). The schooling distribution among new legal immigrants, however, differs from that among the native-born in that it shows concentrations among both the very highly educated as well as those with few years of schooling. At the higher end, the proportion with at least 17 years of schooling is 21 percent, exceeding substantially that among the native born, 7.7 percent. At the other extreme, the proportion with less than nine years of schooling is 20 percent among the NIS-P immigrants and only six percent among the native born.

Skill Transferability. Early analyses indicate that not all of an immigrant's skills are immediately transferable. This transferability varies by personal characteristics and increases with time in the United States. Thus, accurate assessment of a new immigrant cohort's skills requires longitudinal observation.

Preferred Language. Although less than 20 percent of the NIS-P immigrants came from a country whose official or dominant language is English, over 40 percent preferred to be interviewed in English at the baseline round. Another 31 percent preferred Spanish, and eight percent preferred Russian. Other languages preferred by NIS-P immigrants were, in order of frequency (adjusted for over/undersampling): Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, French, Tagalog, Korean, Thai, Arabic, Gujarati, Romanian, Albanian, Bengali, Farsi, Ibo, Italian, and Portuguese. In 58 of the 111 countries represented in the NIS-P, all the immigrants preferred English, and in 22 countries all the immigrants preferred a non-English language.

Language Investment. Immigrants are investing individuals, and this trait is reflected in their knowledge of languages. While as children only slightly less than 10 percent spoke more than one language, by the time of admission to legal permanent residence, 72 percent spoke more than one language. Among the monolingual children, 12 percent spoke English, and among these children, 22 percent learned another language. Among the non-English monolingual children, 73 percent learned (at least some) English and another 3.5 percent learned another language or languages.

Use of English. There is substantial use of English among the NIS-P immigrants, with 78 percent reporting that they use English either at home or outside the home. However, only 48 percent use English both in the home and outside the home, and the proportion who speak only English either at home or outside the home is 34 percent.

Religious Preference. Approximately two-thirds of the NIS-P immigrants are Christian, substantially below the 82 percent of the native born surveyed in the General Social Survey of 1996. However, the proportion Catholic is 42 percent, almost twice as large as among the native born (22 percent). The proportion reporting themselves outside the Judeo-Christian fold is over four times larger among recent immigrants than among the native born (17 versus four percent); eight percent of the new immigrants are Muslim. And as would be expected in a country whose principles include not only the freedom to practice any religion but also the freedom to practice no religion, 15 percent of the new immigrants report no religion, a larger fraction than among the native born (12 percent).

Smoking. It is well known that there is less smoking in the United States than in many other countries around the world and that smoking in the U.S. has declined steadily from rates of 57 percent and 28 percent, among men and women, respectively, in 1955, to rates of 26 and 21 percent, respectively, in 2000. How about immigrants to the United States? How much do they smoke? Among the NIS-P immigrants, 25 percent of the men smoke, down from 53 percent who report ever smoking, and only seven percent of the women smoke, down from 20 percent who report ever smoking. Thus, immigrant men smoke slightly less than U.S. men and immigrant women substantially less than US women. Immigrant men have achieved convergence with U.S. men by dint of quitting; immigrant women have diverged from U.S. women by drastically quitting. These patterns suggest that immigrants, especially immigrant women, may be becoming even more "American" than the native born.

Afterword. It is important to remember that the foregoing results are from an early point in the immigrant career. The patterns revealed in the NIS pilot study may change over the life course, indeed, may change fairly rapidly. Only longitudinal research can tell whether these patterns will last, intensify, attenuate, or reverse. Meanwhile, other cohorts may exhibit different patterns and different trajectories over the life course. The multi-cohort, longitudinal design of the New Immigrant Survey promises to illuminate the immigrant experience.