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 first-generation American. If that’s the case, then what are the immigrant parents? Are they the zero generation? Which leads to my pet peeve…

Immigrants must claim their rightful status as first-generation Americans. From here, second gens like me must insist on recognition as citizens. Our American roots go deeper than the ignorant and the haters want to give us credit for. So don’t accept the role of perpetual outsider. The United States is our country, our home. We belong. 

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

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  1. It’s hard to say why, but reading this somehow is better for my self-esteem. It makes me see my place here and my parents’ place here as immigrants as much more significant. Why should the ”first generation” (which you’ve pointed out, is really the second) be the first to count? The generation we’ve considered ”zero” is just as significant and has put into this country what everyone else has. This pet peeve of yours was an eye-opener; it gives me a more accurate perspective and sense of pride. Thank you!

  2. AMEN! I was raised to always consider myself a second-generation Taiwanese American, as my parents immigrated to the US before I was born. Seems like recently, I’ve heard many people who were born here (but were the first in their family to be so) refer to themselves as fist generation. It’s not just the media, other Asian Americans also use the terms incorrectly. Now what about the 1.5 generation…

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      So true, hapamama! we have to take responsibility for perpetuating stereotypes. there are also the asians who still refer to themselves as “orientals.” as one of my friends says, “‘oriental’ is for describing furniture; ‘asian’ is for people.”

  3. Why shovel sand against the tide? As much as I don’t like it, language and usage changes. It is changed constantly. Certainly not using capital letters when required is not correct. The usage of first generation has become what almost all think it is. Flammable and inflammable is a good one to look up. As far as newspapers go, they are incorrect (and always biased) as often as correct. Something printed in a newspaper should never be taken as “gospel”.

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      Carp, thanks for dropping by and sharing your opinion. While I agree with you that you can’t take newspapers for gospel, they serve an important function in providing a first take on history. Newspapers are a place to start and we take it from there. Hey, hope you’ll visit here again! :)

  4. I don’t know that i’ve ever stumbled across a blog so chock-a-block full of insightful and constructive commentators. I was hunting for an online resource for determining how many generations my family has been living in the U.S. for, and Google decided what i needed was some linguistic clarification and stimulating conversation. As a 19 year old white kid usually inundated in the most vicious circles of the internet, it is a surprise and a relief to find such a successful forum for open thinking. I am not sure how much more i could differ from Betty demographically speaking, but i am certainly grateful for this abundance of food for thought.

    Thank you all.


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  5. This is so ridicilous.The second generation, the third and so on. And for how long will this continue ? And who decides what we are ? If you are born in a country and you are a citizen or if your children are born in that county, that’s it! No need to dig deeper of ones heritage. It’s not about the biological genes but of citizenship.You were born, you went to school, you’re working and paying taxes, you are simply a part of that country. Why making a huge debate of this? I really don’t understand. I’m so fed up with this second generation thing.

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      Hannah, this issue matters! Not everyone thinks as democratically as you do. I wish more folks shared your attitude!

      Unfortunately, we are in a time of tremendous anti-immigrant sentiment. Just look at the debates going on in Congress over immigration reform. To be counted in the discussion, it’s important for immigrants to be acknowledged as first-generation American. This is the beginning of roots.

      If you make the immigrant’s American-born child the first generation, that implies that the roots don’t run very deep. And if they don’t run deep, then you’re viewed as a foreigner. Some of us, depending on our race and ethnicity, are viewed as perpetual foreigners. Is that fair?

  6. Hello . I don’t agree with your previous statement, how can I be a second generation “American” if my Grandpa that is foreign born got his citizenship and my Dad that is foreign born got his citizenship? If that was the case my Grandpa would be first and my Dad would be second… Wouldn’t that make me a third generation American ? No it wouldn’t because I am a First Generation American because I was obviously born in the land of the free from immigrat parents.

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      Elijah, thanks for dropping by. You raise an interesting point. Please allow me to clarify. You are referring to two separate issues.

      1) You are in a family with you, your father and your grandpa. You are three generations! We can agree on that, right?

      2) But it sounds like your grandpa and dad both came from another country. They came together, starting life over here in America. Together. they represent the first generation of your family to live here. So they are the first generation to live here. They are also the first generation with the option to seek citizenship, making them first generation Americans.

      You are different because you were born here. You, unlike your dad and grandpa, were born American. That makes you the second generation of your family to put down roots in America.

      So if you really want to declare yourself a proud citizen of the land of the free, claim your birthright! You are second generation. You have roots in this country. These roots are longer and deeper than merely a first generation in the USA.

      There’s an anti-immigrant tone to this country that would like us to make some of perpetual foreigners. To declare yourself first generation makes you sound like a newcomer. It denies you your rights as a longtime American family with an American history.

  7. Wrong. Just add an adjective: either immigrant, naturalized citizen or natural born citizen. In your case, you are a first generation natural born American [citizen]. Period. Your parents are first generation naturalized [citizen] if they have been naturalized, or first generation American immigrants, if not. The grandparents would then be first generation immigrants or citizen, giving your parents the second generation label. If we were to drop the clarifying adjectives above, it would make you third generation American, your parents second, and your grandparents first, depending on naturalization status. Pretty simple and clear, in my opinion.

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      Hey someone, we actually agree. What you’ve done in your comment is explain to us how to use the word “citizen” across the generations. Thanks!

      But your explanation on how to use the word “generation” is the same as what I’ve got in the post.

  8. What if a set of parents came here with already born children? What does that make the parents and children now? And then if the parents have another child born here on top of their previous child(ren)–would that child still be 2nd generation?

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      Oh, I see your confusion, Trisha. This is not about the generation between children and their parents. It’s about how many generations an individual has been in the country. So if a family with kids immigrates to a new country, they are ALL first generation in that new country. If the parents have an American-born kid, that baby is second generation. The older siblings who immigrated are still first generation!

  9. Great topic Betty! Unfortunately there is not universal consensus about the definition:
    >>Some demographers and sociologists still insist, however, that you cannot be a first-generation immigrant unless you were born in the country of relocation.

    Demographers probably have their reasons for this old school definition– beyond wanting to make us feel bad. 30 years ago, i would have loved to hear your more “politically correct” definition, which may have made me feel more American or more “empowered,” and validated the time my grandparents spent here. But now i don’t get caught up in the importance of such labels. As a humanist, i don’t think it matters that much which generational number you attach to anyone, especially when it comes to “how much of an American” you are.
    If someone is industrious and happy to be here, it should be obvious that he or she is making a greater contribution to the U.S. as an immigrant than someone who is shiftless or indigent and whose family has been here for generations. Also, how patriotic you are (and supportive of U.S. policies) may not have anything to do with which generation you happen to be. Some people would prefer to consider themselves “citizens of the world,” regardless of what their passport says.

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      Dan, you are indeed a humanist! The reasons I care about the generational issues involve political and social clout. Everything you say is so generous. It sounds like you’re an immigrant and, that with time, you settled in and found your comfort zone.
      But you know what it felt like to be treated as an outsider. I’m only asking for recognition of the second generation so that we can speed our evolution as an American people.

  10. Dear Betty,
    I’m not sure what sort of social/political clout you mean here. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and many others like him have achieved all the clout they could want with their immigrant status. If you want to call them “first generation Americans” that’s fine, but would that really make you respect them any more? I would say that you can be even more proud of yourself and what you’ve accomplished when you say that you are an immigrant or 1st generation American. It says that you’ve made it and have been successful by your own wits and effort, without the same amount of benefits and resources that are typically bestowed upon the following generations of Americans.
    As for being treated as an outsider, that is more of a racial issue. When i was a teenager in the 70s, Asians were thought of as outsiders probably due to their “different” appearance, no matter what generational designation they might have. Thankfully things are vastly different now, as attitudes change over time (another reason why the next generation has it easier ;-)

  11. Clearly, since your parents were immigrants, you are among the first generation in your family to be born in the U.S. since you were born here. You are a first generation American.

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      Albert, yes, I was the first generation born here. But my parents were the first generation to arrive here. In terms of the law, they are legally the first-generation Americans because they are the first generation eligible for citizenship. That is why they are first-generation Americans!

  12. Pingback: Let’s share immigrant stores as #MoreThanALabel | betty ming liu

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    I am an older sister with an only child! At the bottom of the post, you’ll see a family portrait with my dad holding my sister. I always wanted a bigger family, both for myself and my daughter. :)

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