Is an Immigrant Considered First or Second Generation?

Generational Definitions

Multi-generation family walking in autumn woods
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Regarding immigration terminology, there is not a universal consensus on whether to use first-generation or second-generation to describe an immigrant. The best advice on generational designations is to tread carefully and realize that the terminology is not precise and often ambiguous. As a general rule, use the government's terminology for that country's immigration terminology.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the first generation is the first family member to gain citizenship in the country or permanent residency.

First Generation Definitions

There are the two possible meanings of the adjective first-generation, according to the Webster's New World Dictionary. First-generation can refer to an immigrant, a foreign-born resident who has relocated and become a citizen or permanent resident in a new country. Or first-generation could refer to a person who is the first in his or her family to be a naturally born citizen in a country of relocation.

The U.S. government generally accepts the definition that the first member of a family who acquires citizenship or permanent residence qualifies as the family’s first generation. Birth in the United States is not a requirement. The first-generation refers to those immigrants who were born in another country and have become citizens and residents in a second country after relocation. 

Some demographers and sociologists insist that a person cannot be a first-generation immigrant unless that person was born in the country of relocation.

Second-Generation Terminology

According to immigration activists, second-generation means an individual who was naturally born in the relocated country to one or more parents who were born elsewhere and are not U.S. citizens living abroad. Others maintain that second-generation means the second generation of offspring born in a country.

As waves of immigrants migrate to the U.S., the numbers of second-generation Americans, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as those individuals who have at least one foreign-born parent, are growing rapidly. In 2013, about 36 million people in the United States were second-generation immigrants, while combined with the first generation, the total of first- and second-generation Americans numbered 76 million.

In studies by the Pew Research Center, second-generation Americans tend to advance more quickly socially and economically than the first-generation pioneers who preceded them. As of 2013, 36 percent of second-generation immigrants had bachelor degrees.

Several studies have shown that by the second generation, most immigrant families have fully assimilated into American society.

Half-Generation Designation

Some demographers and social scientists use half-generation designations.  Sociologists coined the term 1.5 generation, or 1.5G, to refer to people who immigrate to a new country before or during their early teens. The immigrants earn the label the "1.5 generation" because they bring with them characteristics from their home country but continue their assimilation and socialization in the new country, thus being "halfway" between the first generation and the second generation.

Another term, 2.5 generation, could refer to an immigrant with one U.S.-born parent and one foreign-born parent.