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A Nation of Assimilated Immigrants

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Immigration is a contentious issue because it perturbs many people’s self-image and sense of acceptance. “Do I belong here? Am I as American as you?” Few say it like that, yet those are the unspoken undercurrents fueling the fear and anger over the issue. Yet immigration also raises legitimate concerns about the allocation of limited social services (education, health care), taxes, unemployment, wage depression, crime, and the environment. How to address those issues without sounding like a racist hiding behind those issues?

Some politicians and pundits hide behind the mantra: “Legal immigration yes, illegal immigration no,” a neat way of both supporting and opposing immigration, while avoiding the real question: “What should be legal?” How many do we admit, how quickly, using what standards, what consequences for those here illegally and what of their children? If legality were the real issue, we could solve the problem overnight by legalizing everyone.

I’m going to avoid those questions too, because I have no easy answers. (At least I am blatant about it.) Instead, I propose we focus on a proven solution to all our past immigration problems: Assimilation.

To say America is a nation of immigrants is like saying the sky is blue. It’s both true and irrelevant. Every nation is a nation of immigrants; people have been migrating across the globe ever since we left Africa. Nor did the thirteen largely English colonies mean to establish a nation of immigrants. Many did not welcome America’s first large Catholic influx in the 1840s, and Emma Lazarus’s poem (“Give me your tired…”) did not grace Lady Liberty until 1903.

More importantly, to say we are a nation of immigrants is an incomplete truth. A fuller truth is that we are a nation of immigrants who assimilated–who learned English, did not rely (through most of our history) on government safety nets, and sought to “become Americans” (a once-popular phrase).

Assimilation is not homogeneity. Marines and hippies, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Morrison, are equally American. Assimilation is not conformity to Norman Rockwell, but an erosion of tribal empathy for one’s ethnicity and former homeland as one feels increasing attachment for the host culture and its people. Assimilation is the reciprocal price the immigrant pays for the benefit of acceptance. (Reciprocal, because contrary to the stereotype of discrimination always being a white or American thing, immigrants from all nations import their own share of prejudices.) Assimilation is thus the opposite of both rightist nativism and leftist identity politics; the former rejects the newcomer, the latter rejects the host.

America’s strength has never been its diversity, but its ability to overcome diversity through assimilation. “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) refers to the thirteen colonies, but could as easily describe our melting pot.

It is no insult to other cultures to say that America has its own. We say we are a multicultural nation because we worry it may offend to say otherwise, but also because it appears true from our surface diversity (skin color, food, clothes music). Yet American diversity is a mile wide and an inch deep. Beneath the surface most Americans share a sense of nationhood and fundamental values (even if Reds and Blues accuse each other of betraying those values). That sounds vague because, like obscenity, American culture is easy to recognize but difficult to define. Yet its truth becomes apparent to any American traveling abroad, many of whom say they’ve never felt so American as when visiting their ancestral homelands.

Surface diversity is enriching, but deep diversity can be dangerously divisive. Despite their more homogeneous surfaces, diversity runs so deep in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Mideast, and the tellingly “former” Yugoslavia that people have murdered one another to assure the dominance of their religious or ethnic group.

America too has suffered deep diversity, Jim Crow being only one recent example. Yet like the Borg, American culture continues to assimilate everything so it belongs to everyone. Chinese take-out and Italian pizza are not evidence of our multiculturalism, but things we’ve all come to know and share in. We speak a common language, we increasingly vote and marry outside our ethnicities, and we have at least a passing familiarity with most elements in our common culture. For example, I’ve only seen a handful of Star Trek episodes beyond the original series, and none featuring the Borg. Yet American culture is so pervasive, I know enough of the Borg to use them in an analogy.

Another reason Americans confuse themselves for a multicultural nation is that identity politics conflate race and culture. Shown a multiethnic group photo, many will thoughtlessly exclaim, “Oh, how multicultural!” But unless culture is genetically transmitted, an ethnically Chinese girl raised in Germany is culturally German, just as an Italian boy raised in China is culturally Chinese. Likewise, families raised in America are culturally American. Yet by confusing race and culture, Americans are dissuaded from promoting their own culture lest they appear exclusionary by celebrating something they’ve been convinced immigrants are genetically incapable of sharing in. (No one puts it like that, but those are the implied undercurrents of identity politics.)

This false notion of immutable identity fuels much mutual antagonism. Identity politics leftists encourage immigrants to be fearful and defensive over expressions of an American culture they portray as inherently hostile. Closed-borders rightists aggravate those fears, even as they themselves fear a hostile influx bringing poverty and revanchist fantasies. Assimilation disempowers both sides, depriving the left of a constituency, and the right of a problem. It does so by making immigrants more economically productive, while instilling in them a sense of national belonging that fosters cooperation and respect for American laws and customs. Thus does assimilation alleviate immigration’s economic and social problems.

America owes nothing but offers much to those wishing entry, and makes no onerous requests; far less is required to assimilate into the U.S. than into most any other nation. Learning English is the big first step leading to all others, and most immigrants already wish to take it. Programs discouraging English (multilingual schooling, ballots, and documents) should be substituted for efforts to teach English. People concerned with immigration might consider voluntarist ways to assist the assimilation process. (Ironically, it may help to know a foreign language; I’ve begun studying Spanish.)

Between the extremes of identity politics and nativism lies the moderate assimilationist center. It’s rooted in the American experience and it works.

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About Thomas M. Sipos

  • Nice post. The immigration thing is kind of an interesting mirror to how people see themselves.

    If you study history, you see that people are often on the move, invading here, colonizing there, certain populations growing or declining. It is more the nature of people to be from other places then it is for them to have stayed in the same place for generation after generation (that does happen also, but the moving thing is more common I believe).

    I think the language thing is often over played. Yes, most polish people in America speak english now, but how many of the first generation spoke Polish at home all their lives? Its usually the kids who get totally assimilated.

    If you go to a present day school its not unusual to see grade school kids helping translate for their parents. Not because the parents don’t want to speak english well, but its biologically harder for adults to learn languages than it is for children.

    I forget what book it was in, but I’ve heard there is in certains circles something called the “Kissinger effect”. Henry Kissinger had the heavy accent all his life, but his brother two years younger has no accent at all. Somewhere around the age of 12 you pass a dividing line in brain development where you will either lose a previous accent or keep it forever.

    Just something to keep in mind when you feel a bit resentful at someones thick accent, it doesn’t mean they aren’t on their way to being assimilated (which I agree is a good thing for the most part) it just may take another generation to make the full transition.

  • Nancy

    Good post. There is, however, now considerable doubt that assimilation will occur, according to recent articles in the NY Times & W. Post. Consider Miami: one could be born, live out their life, and die in Miami, and never spend a nanosecond outside the culture of Cuba. There’s no need; the population is large and self-sustaining enough that speaking English or knowing US history/customs/etc. is totally unnecessary. There are also the very recent reports that of the total US population now, 1 in 5 below the age of 18 is Hispanic, 1 in 7 overall. Hispanics are no longer an actual minority. The big problem with this is, again, that we end up getting back to the vast majority of these being illegal, and co-opting scarce resources and services that by right belong to citizens, thereby depriving citizens themselves of what they pay for through their taxes. And this is neither right nor fair. Eventual assimilation has been the rule, but with changing demographics like the above, as in Europe with their waves of middle-easterners and north Africans, who are NOT assimilating and have declared no intention of doing so, I think this ‘rule’ is changing even now, and will not apply in future. With millions of illegals swelling the population and their overall percentage growing, why should they assimilate, when in a very few years the US will be Latino anyway? Already in almost every urban and suburban area of the US services, stores, goods, even groceries are almost as heavily Hispanic as “American”. Increasingly, it is possible for someone in my area to go through their lives not speaking a word of English, totally ignorant of US law and/or customs, and not having to assimilate, because of the huge numbers of foreigners who make it possible to do so. In the past, even big enclaves of Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, or what-have-you in big cities were still an effective minority that had to assimilate to interact; this is no longer the case when the ‘minority’ has reached a proportion of 1/5th the total population. What makes this ‘bad’ is that we believe that our US culture and law is in general the best in the world, but it is being overwhelmed and ultimately replaced by people with far different standards due to their economic and cultural levels.