urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Keys To Successful Immigration: Implications Of The New Jersey Experience

Document date: March 19, 1997
Released online: March 19, 1997
Contact: Susan Brown (202) 261-5702

New Urban Institute Press book offers one of the first comprehensive examinations of regional effects of recent immigration trends

Washington, D.C. — At a time when the fiscal, social, and political impacts of immigration on states have grown increasingly controversial, New Jersey is managing a successful transition for its newest arrivals. Their success story—the factors contributing to it and the implications for the nation's immigration policy— are the focus of a new Urban Institute Press book, Keys to Successful Immigration: Implications of the New Jersey Experience, edited by Thomas J. Espenshade, professor of sociology and faculty associate of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. The book offers one of the first comprehensive examinations of the implications of national immigration policy at the state and county levels and suggests ways to refine immigration and other policies to improve the reception that U.S. immigrants receive nationwide.

Contributing authors include leading demographers, sociologists, and economists, among them senior Urban Institute researchers Rebecca L. Clark, Genevieve M. Kenney, and Wendy N. Zimmermann. They examine the demographic context for immigration, the impacts of immigrants on New Jersey's native population and its institutions, and the processes by which immigrants adapt to a new society. The authors describe these effects in economic and noneconomic contexts, pointing out similarities and dissimilarities elsewhere in the country.

Why New Jersey?

New Jersey is fertile ground for examining state and local implications of U.S. immigration policy. It ranks fifth among all major immigration states in the total number of foreign-born persons, fourth in the proportion of foreign-born, and first in the nation in the diversity of its immigrant population. Its racial and ethnic composition, moreover, matches more closely than any other state that of the United States as a whole.

Summary of the New Jersey Experience

There are important similarities and differences between the New Jersey immigrant experience and the rest of the nation.

Similarities: In New Jersey, like the country as a whole, immigrants do not appear to have substantial adverse labor-market impacts on natives; immigrants exert somewhat greater state and local fiscal burdens than do natives, and immigrant children speak many languages. The prevalence of low birth weight babies declines with length of residence in the U.S.; immigrant levels of residential segregation are low relative to minority racial and ethnic groups; and Asian and Hispanic immigrants make rapid progress toward home ownership after their arrival here.

Differences: New Jersey's foreign-born population experienced rapid wage growth during the 1980s, countering national trends of declining skills among immigrants relative to native workers; greater concentrations of immigrants in local labor markets had a positive effect on the wages of New Jersey-native high school dropouts; Latino immigrants exhibited higher rates of citizenship and greater political attachment to the United States than Latinos nationwide; and immigration appears to be a less politically charged issue in New Jersey than in other states with high concentrations of immigrants.

Keys to Success

The authors offer persuasive evidence of the demographic and other factors that appear to be driving these differences and facilitating a smooth transition into American society for New Jersey's immigrants. Among the most important keys to successful integration are:

Higher education levels: New Jersey's immigrant population has a generally higher level of educational attainment than immigrants nationwide. The educational advantage of New Jersey's foreign- born is maintained among every origin group (Asians, Latinos, and others), except for Europeans. The education gap is particularly striking for the Asian population.

More heterogeneous population: In contrast to national trends, no one national origin group dominates New Jersey's immigrant population, and the state's immigrant population is becoming even more diverse. Individuals who emigrated from Italy were the largest foreign-born group in New Jersey in 1990, accounting for 7.3 percent of all non-natives, followed by Cuba (6.5 percent), India (5.4 percent), Germany (4.4 percent), and Colombia (4.2 percent). Though concentrated in the northeastern part of the state, the foreign-born also spread to the western and southern regions of New Jersey during the 1980s. This decentralization trend appears to be emerging nationwide.

Declining income inequality: Although the gap between rich and poor widened throughout the country during the 1980s, it narrowed in New Jersey. One explanation is the favorable economic climate in that state. During the 1980s, New Jersey experienced lower unemployment and business failure rates than the country as a whole.

Fewer illegal immigrants: Despite its sizable foreign-born population, New Jersey's undocumented share is below the national average. Illegal immigrants constitute just 1.5 percent of the state's total population; they are geographically diverse and consist mostly of persons who have overstayed their visas. Moreover, the state's response to undocumented immigrants has been muted.

Positive attitudes toward immigrants: New Jersey residents have more positive attitudes about immigration than do respondents nationwide. For U.S.-born New Jersey natives, immigration is as important an issue as taxes, less important than crime, but more significant than jobs. Low levels of illegal immigrants, the great distance of the state from the U.S.-Mexico border, the east coast's long immigration tradition, the state's diverse (and less easily stereotyped) immigrant population, and a favorable economic climate during the 1980s contribute to a warmer reception for these new arrivals.

Policy Implications

Can the New Jersey experience be replicated? According to Espenshade, the answer depends greatly on the federal government's response to immigration policy and its ability to create immigrant streams that are diverse, well educated, and legal. It also will require taking steps to fuel economic growth as an engine for assimilation and better informing the public about immigration issues.

To further these goals, Espenshade suggests giving greater consideration to whether education should be made a more explicit criterion for permanent residence, and whether this criterion should be extended to include not only employment-based but also family-sponsored immigration. Other steps include giving more attention to the development and articulation of an official immigrant policy to reduce barriers to immigrant adjustment and to help smooth the transition of new immigrants into U.S. society. Efforts could be increased to reduce barriers to citizenship as well. Finally, the public needs to be better informed about the diversity of immigrant origins and the variety of geographic and economic contexts of their assimilation. If perceptions were better aligned with reality, says Espenshade, tolerance toward immigrants would increase and fewer individuals would hold restrictionist attitudes.

Support for Keys to Successful Immigration: Implications of the New Jersey Experience, edited by Thomas J. Espenshade, Urban Institute Press, March 1997, was provided in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Copies can be ordered from University Press of America, (800) 462-6420. Cloth, ISBN 0- 87766-661-X, $69.50. Paper, ISBN 0-87766-662-8, $26.95. Dr. Espenshade can be reached at (609) 258-5233 to answer inquiries.

The Urban Institute is a private, nonprofit research organization established in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Its staff investigates the social and economic problems confronting the nation and government policies and programs designed to alleviate those problems.

Topics/Tags: | Immigrants

Usage and reprints: Most publications may be downloaded free of charge from the web site and may be used and copies made for research, academic, policy or other non-commercial purposes. Proper attribution is required. Posting UI research papers on other websites is permitted subject to prior approval from the Urban Institute—contact publicaffairs@urban.org.

If you are unable to access or print the PDF document please contact us or call the Publications Office at (202) 261-5687.

Disclaimer: The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Copyright of the written materials contained within the Urban Institute website is owned or controlled by the Urban Institute.

Email this Page