If former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s comments that Hispanics “should work harder at assimilation” sounded familiar to you, they should.
The remarks — which Brokaw has since tried to walk back — ignited a firestorm of criticism.
“They ought not to be just codified in their communities,” Brokaw said in a TV roundtable Sunday, “but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities.”
Former White House chief of staff John Kelly made a similar assertion in an interview with NPR last year, saying Central American immigrants “don’t speak English and don’t integrate well.”
Historians have noted that this is a tale as old as the United States itself. The very same critiques we hear now about Latino immigrants were once used to criticize large groups of immigrants who arrived from Europe. And over the past few decades, this kind of comment has been a regular refrain as part of arguments against immigration.
But for years, study after study has shown it simply isn’t true.
As Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography for the Pew Research Center, noted on Twitter, Latinos’ English proficiency has been on the rise for years.
“The evidence shows that English, and the views that come with it, gains ground in the first generation — among the foreign-born — and becomes dominant among their children in the second generation,” the center said in a 2005 report.
That study and others based on subsequent surveys and analyses from Pew link assimilation to language learning and make a key point: While their parents may not speak English when they arrive in the United States, the children of Latino immigrants — just like the children of immigrants from other demographic groups — learn English.
“Language use among Hispanics in the US reflects the trajectories that previous immigrant groups have followed,” Pew said in 2012. “Immigrant Hispanics are most likely to be proficient in Spanish, but least likely to be proficient in English. In the second generation, use of Spanish falls as use of English rises. By the third generation, English use is dominant.”
And in 2015, Pew found that English proficiency was growing while the share who speak Spanish at home was declining.
More recently, an analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute think tank found that “Central Americans assimilate very well.”
That study cited data from the American Community Survey, noting an “impressive difference between first-generation immigrants with Central American ancestry and their descendants born in the United States.”
Of the group born in the United States, 91% speak English “very well” and another 6% speak it “well.” While in the first generation, 49% speak English poorly or not at all, that number drops to 3% in the next generation.
Cato immigration policy analyst David Bier pointed to his report, which was first published last year, in response to Brokaw’s comments and subsequent attempts to apologize.
Brokaw wrote that he was “truly sorry his comments were offensive to so many” and that he feels “terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture.”
“Tom,” Bier wrote, “should have just said he was wrong about immigrant assimilation.”