Who is first- and second-generation American?

Are you first- or second-generation American?

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 46 Comments

I am SO ANNOYED. When will people get this straight??! If you’re an immigrant to this country, then you’re first generation. If your kids are born here, then they are second generation. So who are you — first- or second-generation?

This is really important because of the hating on immigrants. Most people wrongly assume that the American-born child of immigrants are the first-generation American. Well, let’s take a minute to think about that: If American-born kids like me are first gens, then what are my immigrant parents? Are they the zero generation, with zero identity? Which leads to my pet peeve…

Immigrants must claim their rightful status as first-generation Americans. That’s who they are, even if they never naturalize as American citizens. This how immigrants are legally defined in government statistics and research by our nation’s best scholars. But our racist society and ignorant pop culture insist on discriminating because it gives them more power. They believe they have the right to get it wrong.   

So it’s up to second gens like me  and you to speak up on this topic. We need to remind everyone that our American roots go a whole generation deeper than what people think. A family generation is defined as 25 to 30 years. That means our immigrant parents and loved ones have already made decades of personal sacrifices and invested billions of dollars in building this country. 

Immigrants deserve their place at the table as the first generation. To accept anything less is to accept that immigrants are forever outsiders. And by extension, American-born kids like me feel marginalized. On the fringe. Wondering if we really belong here. 

The United States is our country, our home. As immigrant families, we need to be seen and heard for our contributions!

And, our numbers keep growing. New research shows that 45 million immigrants live in the U.S., including 11.3 million who are undocumented. Add in their kids who are born here and we’re talking about an additional 37 million Americans. One in four people who live in the U.S. are either first- or second generation.

Who is first- or second-generation American?

The numbers 

White, non-Latino America is at an all-time low of 65%, according to a new PEW Research Center report. By 2055, whites will no longer be a majority and no single racial or ethnic group will take its place. And by 2065, one in four people living in this great country will be Latino.

For the past 50 years, Latinos have been the fastest-growing immigrant group, accounting for 47% of all immigrants. But issues like the crackdown on undocumented Mexicans has slowed the Latino community’s overall expansion. This is true whether we’re talking about the first- or second-generation.

Meanwhile, Asian immigration hit a historic high in 2013, accounting for 41% of all new immigrants, the study found. The influx now makes people of Asian heritage 6% of the U.S. population. In the past, generations of Asian immigrants came to join relatives who were already here. But recent arrivals, who tend to be educated, come to work in white collar jobs.  

The reality

A few days ago, another new report was released by a team of scholars. They pulled together more than 400 pages of fresh material at the request of the feds. Here are interesting facts from that study:

  • Immigrants are healthier and less likely to die of heart disease or cancer.
  • Neighborhoods that are predominantly immigrant have lower crime rates.
  • Divorce is lower in immigrant families, with more two-parent households.  
  • More than 25% of all immigrants are college educated.
  • On the job front, immigrants tend to work more and make less.
  • 37 million second generation children of all ages., including adults, live in the U.S.

Another related fact in the report: The longer immigrants and their kids stay in this country, the more they start looking like everyone else. Heart disease rates, crime rates, rates for children born to unwed moms — these numbers eventually tick upward. This is the downside of becoming either first- or second-generation American.

These major immigration studies are coming out now to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This law overhauled a racist system that favored white Northern European immigrants and limited everyone else to strict quotas. After 1965, immigrants from Asian, Africa and Latin America came in ever-larger numbers. 

Our complex history demands an understanding of our generational relationships. Using accurate definitions becomes a wonderful weapon and tool for making us instantly more American. We can count more. We need to be counted. Being counted is a source of strength and power. 

My family

Too bad my parents died before they could witness this extraordinary time in America. But I am here to bear witness and collect our stories.

My dad immigrated from South Vietnam and my mom, from China. They were both naturalized citizens and were very proud to be American.  Me, I’m born in New Jersey.

Just to make sure we all understand the first-or-second generation thing, consider this next scenario. Even if Mom and Dad never became naturalized citizens, I am still second generation. Between them and me, we have been here for two generations of contributing, sweat, love and taxes to help build this country.

Defining 2nd generation

Do not view us as foreigners or recently-arrivals. I AM SECOND GENERATION. I AM SECOND GENERATION!!!

To clear up any remaining confusion, here is a definition for “second generation” from the government’s U.S. Census Bureau website:

What is generational status? Who is included in the first, second, and third-or-higher generations? The U.S. Census Bureau uses the term generational status to refer to the place of birth of an individual or an individual’s parents. Questions on place of birth and parental place of birth are used to define the first, second, and third-or-higher generations. The first generation refers to those who are foreign born. The second generation refers to those with at least one foreign-born parent. The third-or-higher generation includes those with two U.S. native parents.

If you haven’t overdosed yet on all this data, here’s one more study worth considering. America’s second generation is incredibly diverse, according to a 2013 PEW Research Center Report on second-generation Americans. More than 20 million second gens are adults. The majority of us — seven out of every 10 second gen adults — are either Latino or Asian American. We tend to be better off financially and have more education than our parents. We are most comfortable speaking English. Our marriage partners and friends often come from outside our ethnic group. We also tend to think of ourselves as “typical American.” Of course we are!

Let people know who you are

I hope you’ll share this post with people who will celebrate our belonging, as well those who are misinformed. Sadly, we have a lot people who are getting the second gen issue wrong, including journalists. Even top news organizations make mistakes. All. The. Time. 

So… are you first- or second-generation American? Claim your cultural rights. Think of what our parents and relatives went through to get us here. Let’s respect them. And, ourselves. 


Comments 46

  1. Post

    and i have another pet peeve for this week….my facebook “like” button on the blog has disappeared! uggggh. my tech consultant won’t have time to fix it until this weekend. but i hope you’ll take the extra minute to share this post on fb. we really need to get this information straight. it would be great for our sense of community and self-esteem. xo

  2. Betty darlin’, I definitely get the logic here, and I admit I was never aware (until you told me, a while back) of the Census Bureau’s definition. And yet. Don’t be peeved at me, but I’m afraid that I’m part of the “cultural bias” that’s kept perpetuating the incorrect usage. But not for the reasons you’ve presented.
    As a fellow daughter of immigrants, I too am passionately committed to honoring their experiences and contributions; this is at the heart of much of my writing and public speaking, even my teaching. Yet I never questioned – or bristled at- the standard designation of being a “First Generation American.” I always thought of it this way: I am the FIRST generation of my family to have had the privilege/advantage to be BORN in America. My parents – and to be scrupulous about terminology, they were “refugees,” not immigrants – built the foundation for my future here, as the first generation to come to America, yes. And they did so without possessing the full complement of advantages (even language) that became my birthright. This made their hard work, their successes, their patriotism, everything they bequeathed to me (materially and philosophically) all the more extraordinary, in my view. It renders them anything but invisible. Rightly or wrongly, thinking of or portraying myself as “Second Generation” makes me feel MORE distant from the struggles and triumphs that forged the deep roots of my parents’ immigrant experience, and more disconnected from the daily challenges to acculturate (but not assimilate) that were central to my family of origin. And I don’t like that one bit. All those “firsts” made me who I am.
    Because of my German-Jewish parents’ escape from the Holocaust (one fleeing before the camps, one liberated after), I’m the FIRST to be born into a society built upon “liberty and justice for all.” (Or so we purport – clearly we’ve still got a ways to go.) I’m the first to be free to study at whatever school I wanted to, the first to have a high-school yearbook instead of memories of classmates who were victims of genocide. I never forget this.
    The fact that MOST people/media apparently get it wrong, makes it that much harder for me to start gettin’ it right. I want my students who are the children of immigrants to know that I feel a deep, deep commonality with them, regardless of their familes’ ethnicities or countries of origin. This commonality becomes especially important – even transformative – when they hail from cultures in which they’ve had zero opportunity to get to know a Jew – cultures in which Jews, for a variety of reasons, are mythologized, even demonized. If I simply point out that I’m “Second Generation American,” I’m pretty certain that most listeners assume I possess some vague knowledge of my families’ roots, via an immigrant granny’s tales in a language I barely understand – surely not that I grew up in a household that spoke more German than English, or that I relied upon television to teach me how American families were supposed to act (ha) – the Nelsons, the Cleavers, etc., and my favorite, “Donna Reed.”
    But because accuracy/specificity of language is my stock in trade, as it is yours, I guess I’ll have to get my act together and start making my newfound identity as a “Second-Generation American” a teachable moment for those as misguided as I was. Sigh.
    SORRY for once again writing a long-ass post on your blog. But you raise provocative stuff! I am provoked! xoxo

  3. Post

    viv, i love all the long comments because it shows people care. thank you for this. i totally vibe with the passion you bring to the discussion.

    but i go back to the original point…did your parents become american citizens? would you call them the zero-generation american? especially given all that they suffered, don’t they deserve the right to have their citizenship acknowledged?

    i know this is emotional stuff. but it’s a great discussion that we need to keep having. xoxoxox

  4. Yes, they became citizens, and never missed voting in an election. Like I said: I can’t fault the logic of your argument. I guess I never felt compelled to attach the word (or concept of) “generation” to how I viewed my parents’ status as Americans. Does the fact that you’re said to turn “one” on your first birthday, indicate that you were “zero” during the year after your birth? Well, “zero YEARS old” – sure. But this doesn’t imply that you didn’t exist. Instead, your age/developmental status is referred to in terms of months, or weeks. I identified my parents as German-Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors who proudly attained American citizenship, with my brother and I being the first generation to be born Americans. Their designation – to me – bespeaks serious accomplishment worthy of admiration, while ours was sheer happenstance.
    That said: I can definitely see how the more commonly used identifier of people like us, Betty, as “first-generation Americans,” could be rooted (consciously for some, unconsciously for others) in an anti-immigrant bias. Heaven knows, that’s something I’d never want to perpetuate.

  5. My parents are first generation immigrants (born in India) who later naturalized and became 1st generation American citizens. My brother is second generation American (born in America). I was born in India and when my parents naturalized, they naturalized me because I was a minor. What generation American am I?

  6. Betty: Glad you like long comments because here comes another one! Your post calls attention to issues I have come to realize have serious implications for both individuals and our society at large. First comes the inherent racism – often unconscious – of American culture. One of my wonderful adopted sons is of Philippine descent. So many times he has been asked – by “nice” people with big smiles – “so – where…were…you…born?” (speaking slowly, clearly and a shade louder than usual) His usual response – “uhh…Jersey City,” leaves them a bit non-plussed, having automatically assumed that his Asian features meant “not an American.” That response has been delivered, over the years, with increasingly less patience and I don’t blame him. Beyond the non-American assumption, the further assumptiion that one must have difficulty with the language (even though he has an Ivy League MA) is infuriating. At least It has happened less often as he has gotten older and moves in professional rather than club-kid circles.
    The whole present immigration “crisis” so ballyhooed by the right wing is a huge exercise in pure racism. I run the Learning Center at Mercer College’s inner city campus, here in Trenton, on weekday evenings and most of our students are from South America or West Africa. I have developed more respect for them than I know how to express. Most of them get up at dawn to work at some menial, minimum wage job, then come to the college to work on an education until 9 or 10 every night. Throughout this exhausting schedule, their courtesy and appreciation never faiils. How anyone can think they wiill not be valuable assets to our nation is simply a mystery to me.

  7. Betty,

    I am like you…but always confused! I call my myself first generation sometimes and other times second generation…it is further confused by the fact that my dad was born here, but raised in Jamaica and identified as Jamaican! My mom was born in the Dominican Republic…I have spent most of my life in a state of confusion…I didn’t even feel truly American until I was in my 20’s and traveled/lived in Europe. I was often mistaken for Arab and sometimes discriminated against based on that perception. I really missed America. Between getting stopped by the police and Arab men who were upset with me for the way I dressed and not being veiled, it got scary at times. My only weapon was my American accent and my passport! I felt even more American after I wrote my first book on black vets…most of my life I have felt a disconnect to all my cultures because I am just not “enough” of anything. But you are right…I am American and the media and perception has hurt my ability to identify with that. Thanks for advocating for us kids of immigrants. Our identity is often a throw away and never even explained by our parents…another one of my issues…my parents did not have the vocabulary to help me understand who I was as a mixed minority so I was clueless against the white latino bullies who challenged me about my identity when I was in grade school. They were so mean…so mean…

  8. I saw the same item, Betty, and it bothered me too. But not as much, because I’m pretty sure that different immigrant cultures count it differently, despite whatever the Census Bureau says—so the general usage is all over the place. Asians seems to be the most assiduous in following Betty’s system (issei, nisei, sansei, etc. for Japanese-Americans). By Korean-American definitions, Shakti, you would be called a member of the 1.5 generation.

  9. Hmmmm, good point, Betty. Now in my case, Mom is from the U.S., but my pops is an immigrant. So does that make me a 2.5 generation immigrant? Not being snarky here, I’ve always been curious about this. (Hey, 2.5 beats “half-breed,” which, yes, I have been called. Ha!)

  10. Wow Betty you really hit a nerve. What a great topic — like back in your old Daily News days! I hear you too, but my story is different from yours. All of my life, people assume that my family has been here for many, many generations — and with that go all the assumptions that I was born to affluence, privilege etc. First, there are millions and millions of Americans who have been here for a very long time who are neither affluent nor privileged. There is a strong bias against them; that if they have been in America so long, they should have figured it all out and become successful investment bankers, and not just plain, ordinary, honest people struggling to make a living. I know some people refer to those people as trailer trash. We live in a cruel world. BTW, my family has been here many generations — half of them anyway. But they did what Americans do — they married “other” people not exactly like themselves. That half — my grandparents – were immigrants. I too thought my Mom was first generation — meaning the first generation born in America. I guess it was hard to think of my Grandma as American since she never became a citizen, never spoke English, and frankly never really liked it here. She had an awfully hard life here.

  11. Post

    shakti, i agree with jeannie — you are a 1.5-er. and bria, i have heard 2.5 used! i also think you both have a lot of flexibility in defining yourselves. btw, even though wikipedia isn’t always the most reliable source in the world, it presents a decent overview on the topic of immigrant generations, 1.5, 2.5, etc. here’s the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigrant_generations

    toby, love hearing about your work at the learning center. what you experienced in having an asian-american son is so typical for those of us who step outside of our race and ethnicities. for me, the defining moment was being with a bf and future husband who is black — THAT was when i finally understand racism against black folks. i’ve also heard white adoptive parents with asian kids say the same thing….when they show up somewhere with their children, some people treat them um, differently.

    yvonne — girl, you’re an all-american story! but one that isn’t discussed enough. these days, people are much more aware of the concept of immigrants who are black. but growing up, i was always annoyed with the black community for NOT acknowledging its immigrants connections. (another pet peeve that has bothered me since my married days.) it was as if you had to be “african-american” only and not jamaican-american, etc….but maybe that’s all changing too. hey, rihanna and nicki minaj are both first-generation americans. immigrants matter. :)

  12. Post

    patty, it’s amazing how this topic brings up such intense feelings! in terms of your grandma, i think you’re sort of in the same emotional space that viv is with her parents. yes, they came from somewhere else. and yes, they struggled and didn’t fit our image of what an american looks like. but their stories — and the stories of toby’s students — define the american experience. at least, in my opinion.

  13. The problem seems to be that the U.S. has been a black and white country according to the old way of thinking. Hispanics, who have been here for many generations, are largely ignored unless someone is courting their votes. Asians have only recently started to be courted for their votes and many Americans still do not realize how much blood, sweat, and tears our Asian-Americans have given for their country (building of the railroads; the 442nd in WWII,etc.). The biggest problem for Asians is that while the female is considered exotic and beautiful, the male is largely treated as invisible unless he does something that no one (in the media or America) can ignore. Nothing will change until Asian-Americans start standing up and saying, “Enough! We are Americans! No one adds ‘white’ to white Americans so why do we have to be labeled otherwise?” Stereotypes will go away only if people are made to feel uncomfortable using them. Good grief, how many more hoops are left for Asians to jump through to prove themselves and get the respect they deserve?

  14. First generation, second generation, nisei, what are we talking about?

    This stuff makes my head hurt. My Grandad came to the USA from Italy as a small boy. Taught by the Newark, NJ school system (which scrambled his name from Vinny to James; don’t ask) he was for all intents and purposes second generation. But my mom and her sisters were the first generation natural born citizens. (Yea, 13th / 14th Amendments!!) So am I forth, third or second generation?

    All I know that the only Italian left in me is an addiction to carbohydrates in any form; but especially when they take the form of noodles : Yakisoba, Pancit, Spaghetti, Ramen, Pad Thai, etc., bring it on! Oh, and I make a fairly good all-cheese lasagna for what it’s worth.

    Having study more history than is good for normal functioning, I have a tendency to look at these kind of things sideways. I look at the trajectory of these kind of things, the process. Sooner of later we all end up in the great US Mosaic, each person, each culture a very special piece in that great work. As that mosaic is an ongoing process, and new pieces are being added all the time, it helps to have a sense of humor and proportion.

    I will admit that a clean up on the Gawker post is needed. But hey, it’s Gawker, not the Good Grey Lady –The New York Times. I kinda expect Gawker to be a little sloppy and insensitive, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

    In closing I’m going to inflict, er share, a historical perspective here. It could have been worse. In years past it was worse; does the Chinese Exclusion Act ring any bells? But, by all means, pet peeve away, vent; how are the rest of use lay-abouts ever going to get educated about these kinds of things? Not by our own efforts, I’ll tell you that much.

    1. Post

      based on what you’re saying, i must be italian too because i’m a recovering carb addict. you make other spot-on points too — but my answer is that we have a right to expect others — as well as ourselves — to get it right. the interest is NOT in obsessive labeling. i just think we should get the respect and consideration that we each deserve. :)

  15. Post

    interesting….although it’s not clear to me that becoming american means renouncing “allegiances” to other countries. i remember reading somewhere that jeremy lin’s parents have dual citizenship here and in their motherland of taiwan. there are plenty of countries that offer that to american naturalized citizens. the bottom line is that i’m happy everyone is discussing this issue with me. this is a deep, complicated conversation with lots of twists and turns. :)

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