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How Mexican-Americans Are Winning The American Dream Among Immigrants

A new study of immigrant communities challenges conventional wisdom regarding success. "Most Americans would be more impressed by someone who made it to second base starting from home plate than someone who ended up on third base, when their parents started on third base."

Posted on February 27, 2014, at 5:21 p.m. ET

AP Photo/The Hutchinson News, Travis Morisse

A new study by sociologists at UC Irvine and UCLA seeks to challenge conventional wisdom about who is successful and what success is among immigrants, while making a commentary about the American dream along the way.

Jennifer Lee and UCLA sociologist Min Zhou sought to find out "what happens when you measure success not just by where people end up — the cars in their garages, the degrees on their walls — but by taking into account where they started?" The result was that among Chinese-, Vietnamese-, and Mexican-Americans whose parents emigrated to populous Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans were the most successful when measured by change in mobility from generation to generation.

"When you think about it, there are different levels of capital, whether financial or educational, or resources some immigrants come with. Some start with advantages and some start with disadvantages," Lee told BuzzFeed.

The study, conducted from 2004 to 2008, analyzed intergenerational mobility according to educational attainment by immigrant parents compared to their children. It compared the responses from 4,780 participants. An example of the success for Mexican-Americans is that while nearly 60% of Mexican immigrant parents did not graduate from high school, this figure drops to 14% within one generation.

A quote from the published results of her findings has resonated with most people, Lee said. It's a baseball analogy a colleague made to frame the takeaways from the study:

"Most Americans would be more impressed by someone who made it to second base starting from home plate than someone who ended up on third base, when their parents started on third base. But because we tend to focus strictly on outcomes when we talk about success and mobility, we fail to acknowledge that the third base runner didn't have to run far at all."

The study also looked at how participants viewed their own success.

"The way you measure your success will determine how successful you feel," Lee said. "Mexicans often compare themselves to their parents and how much more they achieved than their parents."

Lee said Asian-Americans were often found to view themselves as less successful in comparison to their parents and the pressures they feel.

Lee said when she shows this data to her students, many of whom are Mexican- or Asian-American, it challenges assumptions and stereotypes they hold about race and achievement. For the Mexican-American students there is a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy they feel, while Asian-Americans may derive added perspective from the data.

Lee said the immigration status of parents also affects children. Parents who arrive as undocumented and remain undocumented have consequences for the second generation, who on average only attain 11 years of education, compared to the children of undocumented immigrants who change their legal status. Those children get 13 years of education. This, Lee said, is the difference between being a high school dropout or a high school graduate, which is crucial.

"This has implications for comprehensive immigration reform," Lee continued. "If we want the next generation to succeed, it's also about taking care of their parents so they can give the best opportunity to their children."

She said it would be a mistake to measure the American dream by the make of your car, the cost of your home, or the prestige of the college degree on your wall because there's a more elemental calculation.

"Whether you achieved more than the generation that came before you," she wrote in the study's findings. "Anyone who thinks the American dream is about the end rewards is missing the point. It's always been about the striving."