Is an Immigrant Considered First or Second Generation?

Multi-generational family walking in autumn woods

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There is no universal consensus on whether to use first-generation or second-generation to describe an immigrant. Because of this, the best advice on generational designations, if you must use them, is to tread carefully and realize that the terminology is imprecise, often ambiguous, and usually important to individuals and families in some capacity.

As a general rule, use the government's immigration terminology and never make assumptions about a person's citizenship status. According to the United States Census Bureau, first-generation immigrants are the first foreign-born family members to gain citizenship or permanent residency in the country.

First Generation

There are two possible meanings of the adjective first generation, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. First generation can refer to a person born in the U.S. to immigrant parents or a naturalized American citizen. Both types of people are considered to be U.S. citizens.

The U.S. government generally accepts the definition that the first member of a family to acquire citizenship or permanent resident status qualifies as the family’s first generation, but the Census Bureau defines only foreign-born individuals as first generation. Birth in the United States is therefore not a requirement, as first-generation immigrants may be either foreign-born residents or U.S.-born children of immigrants, depending on who you ask. Some demographers and sociologists insist that a person cannot be a first-generation immigrant unless they were born in their country of relocation, but this is still debated.

Second Generation

According to some immigration activists, second-generation individuals are naturally born in the relocated country to one or more parents born elsewhere that 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 continue to migrate to the U.S., the number of second-generation Americans is growing rapidly. It is expected that by 2065, 18% of the country's total population will be comprised of second-generation immigrants.

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.

Half Generations and Third Generation

Some demographers and social scientists also 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.

There is also the so-called 1.75 generation, or children who arrived in the U.S. in their early years (before age 5) and are quickly adapting and absorbing their new environment; they behave most like second-generation kids born in U.S. territory.

Another term, 2.5 generation, could be used to refer to an immigrant with one U.S.-born parent and one foreign-born parent, and a third-generation immigrant has at least one foreign-born grandparent.

View Article Sources
  1. "About Foreign Born." United States Census Bureau.

  2. "Chapter 2: Immigration's Impact on Past and Future U.S. Population Change." Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends. 28 Sept. 2015.

  3. Trevelyan, Edward, et al. "Characteristics of the U.S. Population by Generational Status, 2013." Current Population Survey Reports, pp. 23-214., Nov. 2016. United States Census Bureau.