We Could Better Integrate New Immigrants into American Society -- And Should

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Mr. Reifowitz is Assistant Professor of Historical Studies at Empire State College of the State University of New York. He is the author of Imagining an Austrian Nation: J.S. Bloch and the Search for a Multiethnic Austrian Identity, 1846-1919 (East European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, 2003).

"Americanization means becoming a part of the polity -- becoming one of us.”--Barbara Jordan

Levels of immigration not seen for a century have created a feeling among native-born Americans that they have lost control of what American society and culture will look like, and of what American national identity will consist. We need to alleviate these anxieties in order to mitigate the difficulties that new arrivals face. Our society has to devote more resources both to culturally integrating immigrants and making native born Americans more aware of immigrants’ desire to integrate.

Fears about immigration’s effect on American identity lie beneath much of the negativity that immigrants -- especially Hispanics -- face from native-born Americans. Some negativity certainly results from racism. Nevertheless, not all who are concerned about cultural Balkanization in America are motivated by racism. Many want integration and worry that cultural separatism undermines that goal.

Significant numbers of immigrants moving to suburban areas where English had been the predominant language spoken radically transforms the daily lives of the long-term residents, many of whom equate being American with speaking English. A good number resent the increased cultural and linguistic diversity that accompanies immigrants. It is unsurprising when people overreact negatively under those circumstances, for fear of someday being in the linguistic minority themselves, or unable to do business in English in their own communities.

Although not as daunting as what immigrants go through, native-born Americans do have to adjust to immigration, to unfamiliar words and accents. Such adjustments can be especially difficult for older people. Think of largely homebound, often poor and hard of hearing senior citizens who rely on speaking by phone to government employees to get needed services. In some cities, many of the people answering such calls may speak strongly accented English. This can cause frustration and lead to errors that have a tangible effect on people’s lives, not to mention color their feelings towards immigrants.

Change especially scares those already vulnerable socio-economically. Anti-immigrant sentiment among native born Americans, especially among whites, increases as one moves down the economic ladder. People’s economic and cultural insecurities feed off one another. In fact, the fates of the economically vulnerable among the native-born and the new arrivals are intertwined. Breaking this cycle will aid the process of integration.

Nativist demagogues drum up anti-immigrant sentiments by claiming that many immigrants do not identify as Americans or with America, do not want to learn English, and do not adopt our society’s democratic values. For example, Samuel Huntington’s book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, asserted that Hispanic and particularly Mexican immigration will “divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages.”

An article in the March 2007 issue of Perspectives in Politics titled “Testing Huntington: Is Hispanic Immigration a Threat to American Identity?” rejected Huntington’s conclusions. Utilizing data from the U.S. Census and nationwide and Los Angeles opinion surveys, the authors found that “Hispanics acquire English and lose Spanish rapidly beginning with the second generation…. Moreover, a clear majority of Hispanics rejects a purely ethnic identification and patriotism grows from one generation to the next. At present, a traditional pattern of political assimilation appears to prevail.”

Similar examples abound. The Survey of American Political Culture (1996), found that 95% of Hispanics (and whites) agreed with the statement: “America is the world’s greatest melting pot, in which people from different countries are united into one nation.” The Pew Hispanic Center’s June 7, 2006 report concluded: “Hispanics by a large margin believe that immigrants have to speak English to be a part of American society and even more so that English should be taught to the children of immigrants.” According to Carol Schmid’s Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity, and Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2001), such sentiments are consistent with those found in every major survey of immigrants in America taken from 1985 to 2000.

A Pew Hispanic Center report from November 29, 2007, which was based on surveys of over 14,000 Hispanic Americans more than eighteen years old, found them following through on these beliefs. Whereas 23% of first-generation immigrants over eighteen from Spanish-speaking countries reported speaking English very well, that figure rises to 88% among adults in the next generation, and to 94% among the third generation. A report released on November 26, 2007, by the Fiscal Policy Institute finds similar results among immigrants as a whole in the state of New York, noting that New York immigrants’ English language skills grow “significantly better over time.” Those speaking English either well, very well, or English only grew from 63% among those in the country five years or less, to 69% among those here five to nine years, and to 76% among those here ten years or more.

More immigrants would learn English if greater opportunities existed. A November 2007 report from the Center for an Urban Future and the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy found that demand for affordable English classes among working-age immigrants in New York State greatly exceeds their availability. The state’s free English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program can serve only 5% of New York’s limited-English adults. Additionally, a November 2006 report from the same two institutions noted that between 1990 and 2006 the foreign-born population of New York increased by almost 1.3 million, yet the ESOL program added only 15,000 additional seats.

The other side of the integration equation is that immigrant advocacy organizations need to better publicize immigrants’ pro-integration beliefs and emphasize the concrete steps immigrants take toward integration. These organizations’ rhetoric matters a great deal here, as the media often focus more on rhetoric and symbolism (often publicizing isolated incidents that suggest support for cultural separatism and/or a rejection of American identity, such as immigrants’ carrying foreign flags at rallies) than on the gradual and difficult steps toward integration individual immigrants take every day. 

The native population must also respond to immigrants’ efforts to integrate by ensuring that they and their children receive an equal opportunity to succeed economically and achieve positions of leadership in America. Just as American society can expect immigrants to adopt our language, adapt to our culture, and absorb our democratic values, immigrants and their children can expect and even reasonably demand that American society accept them as full members of the national community. This requires not only equal treatment before the law, but also that those whose ancestors were born here embrace immigrants as fellow Americans.

Robert Putnam’s recent research reveals that ethnically diverse communities have lower rates of social interaction and civic engagement. Furthermore, Putnam’s work is part of “a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.” (Michael Jonas, “The Downside of Diversity,” The Boston Globe, August 5, 2007) Countries with greater ethno-cultural homogeneity, in particular in Europe, spend more on citizens’ socio-economic needs. Even there, recent increases in immigration (especially from outside Europe) have called these programs into question. American social spending programs have been presented to citizens as a solution to individual economic insecurity, i.e. those who do not need a program today should support it anyway because it offers security against future calamity. In other words, the program is necessary because of what might happen to ‘you.’ In more homogeneous countries, there exists a greater sense that such programs exist not only because of what might happen to ‘you,’ but also because they provide support to a fellow ‘tribesman,’ because of the myth of common descent and the greater sense of community it engenders. This sense of community makes people in those countries more willing to share resources. Americans, in particular progressives and immigrant advocates, need to encourage integration and the unity across ethnic lines that follows from it for exactly this reason.

Prioritizing the preservation of immigrants’ languages and cultures over integration into the larger American society undermines the desire of the native-born to combat economic hardship outside their own group. Promoting integration leads Americans to see themselves as one people. This means cultivating American nationalism, but a civic rather than an ethnic nationalism, one that promotes unity and support for the common good among Americans rather than negative feelings toward those outside our borders. Nationalism must be not only a tool of the right-wing, nor must the right-wing be allowed to define American nationalism. Nationalism need not be xenophobic; it can be inclusionary, cross-ethnic, and progressive.

America needs immigrant families to continue their ‘Americanization’ (as Barbara Jordan defined it). This will ease native born Americans’ anxieties towards immigration and cultural change. America must also reward the hard work toward integration these newcomers make by embracing them as Americans and ensuring they have an equal chance at the American dream. Cultivating unity across lines of ethnicity will require sacrifice as well as generosity on all sides. However, we must do so to create a successful multiethnic democracy for the twenty-first century.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 10/12/2008

You made a bad analogy which included an implicit ad hominem attack on the author of the piece. The only opinion I have of you is based on the misdirection and hostility of your original comment.

R.R. Hamilton - 10/12/2008

I was only analogizing the author's treatment of American culture -- that it should be open to all and that newcomers ought be quickly embraced as "fellow Americans" -- to that of Jewish culture.

But your personal attack on me suggests you don't have an intelligent response.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/11/2008

I can't tell whether this is anti-semitic or just ignorant and confused. Either RR Hamilton has no idea of the diversity in Jewish culture and belief, or is simply engaging in ad hominem attacks to shift the discussion.

R.R. Hamilton - 10/10/2008

The author says:

"Just as American society can expect immigrants to adopt our language, adapt to our culture, and absorb our democratic values, immigrants and their children can expect and even reasonably demand that American society accept them as full members of the national community."

No, they don't need to "adapt to" American culture. They must be fully assimilated by it before they can expect to be accepted as "full members of the national community".

The author's suggested standards are no different than saying that anyone who enters a synagogue can "demand to be accepted as full members of the Jewish community". This requires that those whose ancestors were born Jewish embrace the newcomers to the synagogue as fellow Jews. Though at the same time, of course, Jews can "expect" the newcomers to "adapt to" Jewish culture.

When the guardians of Jewish culture open their doors and hearts to outsiders as wide as they want the guardians of American culture to open ours, then we can talk again of this idea.