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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Immigration and Adult Transitions
Ruben G. Rumbaut Golnaz Komaie

The Ethnic Diversity of Early Adulthood

Contemporary immigration has led to the formation of new U.S. ethnic groups. Their extraordinary ethnic diversity is belied by the fact that newcomers from more than 150 countries with profoundly different cultures and histories have been officially classified, through the use of one-size-fits-all pan-ethnic categories, as "Hispanics" and "Asians," similar to the older broad racial classifications of "blacks" and "whites." Still, the advent of these newcomers is clearly reflected in the changing ethnic and generational makeup of young adulthood. Among all young adults, non-Hispanic blacks and whites are overwhelmingly native-stock populations, while Hispanics and Asians are overwhelmingly foreign-stock groups: about 90 percent of whites and blacks are native-born of native-born parents (third or higher generations), but about 80 percent of Hispanics and 94 percent of Asian ethnics are either foreign born or of foreign parentage (first or second generation). This sharp divide reflects the recency of the migration of the latter groups, and underscores the central importance of nativity and generation in the experience of ethno-racial groups in contemporary America. The magnitude of the ethnic shift will become more pronounced as a result of continuing international migration (especially from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia), the higher fertility of immigrant women in the United States, and the aging and lower fertility of the white native population. For instance, Hispanics, who according to the U.S. Census Bureau surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group in the United States in 2003, now account for one of every five young adults nationally—and much larger proportions in states and counties of Hispanic concentration, including California, Texas, New York, and Florida.3

Lumping millions of newcomers into "Hispanic" and "Asian" pan-ethnic categories, however, conceals fundamental differences between the scores of nationalities that are bound and glossed by those labels. Of the 19 million first- and second-generation young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, more than half come from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, but fully 35 percent from a single country: Mexico. Salvadorans and Guatemalans together add 5 percent more, Puerto Ricans 4 percent, and Dominicans and Cubans 2 percent each. Together, this handful of Latin American groups makes up nearly 50 percent of all first- and second-generation young adults in the United States. Similarly, despite far greater diversity among a score of Asian-origin groups, five of them make up another 16 percent of first- and second-generation young adults: Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians account for 4 percent each, and Vietnamese and Koreans for 2 percent each. Those ten ethnic groups thus constitute nearly two-thirds of all eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds of foreign birth or parentage.

Their countries of origin are the largest sources of immigration to the United States, and they represent the principal types of migration flows (undocumented laborers, professionals, refugees). More than half of all Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan immigrants in the United States today are undocumented; those groups make up 70 percent of the estimated 11.6 million unauthorized immigrants (Mexicans alone account for three-fifths of the total).4 Indians, Chinese (including Taiwanese), Koreans, and Filipinos have predominated among the "brain drain" flows of professional immigrants. And Cubans and Vietnamese are by far the two largest groups admitted as state-sponsored political refugees. Accordingly, although they by no means exhaust the extraordinary diversity of contemporary immigration, those ten groups (five "Hispanics," five "Asians") will be considered separately in the analyses that follow.