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

  1. Good Afternoon, Betty, I was born to Nigerian parents here in the US, part of my childhood spent in Nigeria from ages 7 to 12. Came back at age 12 and found myself not truly identifying with black american culture by the time I graduated high school I gave up trying to identify with black american culture. I feel more in tune with my Nigerian culture because I can speak a Nigerian language, Igbo to be exact which always reminds me where my cultural roots ultimately. I appreciate your post . America for so long has been a white/ black country which leaves out anyone who doesnt want to fit into that ridiculous binary.

    1. Post

      Jason, you’re raising a super-important issue about diversity within the Black experience. Many of my students who self-identify as Black or African American are the children of immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. Their stories need to get out there. But as you point out, the narrow Black/White framing of issues needs to change. We’re part of the solution!

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