Saturday, March 11, 2006

Why don't immigrants assimilate as they used to?

In one of my posts this week, one of the commenters discussed the difference between people who were born here who don't speak English (i.e. native Americans and a lot of New Mexico Hispanics) and immigrants who don't learn English. This led me to consider some of the larger issues involved in explaining why so many people who come here, in particular those who come illegally, also don't assimilate into American culture as thoroughly or completely (or in may cases, even at all) as either legal immigrants or immigrants who came here in generations past.

Of course, we should remember that prior to 1921, they were almost all (see below) legal immigrants. In that year, as Isaac Asimov once wrote in a memorable phrase, "the Golden Door slammed shut," as Congress passed immigration quotas that strictly limited immigration, and in a way that if they were followed would create an America reflective of the desires of Congress (i.e. Britain and Germany were allocated the largest quotas, because so many Americans were of British and German descent, as were most other northern European countries, while proportionately fewer were allocated according to the population that Congress wanted from Slavic Europe, Mediterranean Europe, and far less than that for Latin America and Asia, while none were allocated for people of black African origin (reflecting the fact that Congress at the time determined, in ways known only to them, that we had enough black people already in America.) Since then, the quotas have changed and no longer reflect open racism or a desire by Congress to only populate America with people from certain parts of the world, but they are still below what is realistic (so that right now, we have anywhere from ten to twenty million illegal aliens living in America-- the accumulated difference since the general amnesty that was granted in 1984 between what Congress decreed and what the market determined).

The problem of non-assimilation however is relatively new. And, it is the product of a number of factors. One is that people in many of the countries where many immigrants come from have become more nationalistic, especially with the growth of democracy. In the old days, someone from a country in Latin America, for example, would gladly embrace America once they were here because they were only giving up a tie to a land which was ruled by dictators and in which other than family, they had no personal stake. Now many people in Latin America take pride in their nations, and that part of it isn't a bad thing. If we quit signing trade agreements like CAFTA that let corporations continue to go into those nations and set up sweatshops, and instead signed trade agreements that focused on raising the living standards in poor countries, they would be less inclined to try to sneak into America.

Another factor, which is less welcome, is that illegal immigrants don't want to become too enmeshed in American culture because it is more likely to get them noticed and deported. As long as they can fade into an ethnic neighborhood where no one speaks much English or is involved in any civic activity, they won't be noticed. So, in contrast to generations past, when many immigrants would open small businesses (such as my mother's immigrant parents, who for awhile ran a small shop in Brooklyn), many of today's illegal immigrants would never even think of opening one because that would inevitably attract the attention of the authorities. So, they don't get involved or learn English.

Now, this second factor brings us to a fundamental flaw in our present system: we want immigrants to assimilate, but then we set things up to go better for them if they do not.

My suggestion is this: First, I support the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill. However, I would also add that we provide free citizenship AND English classes for any immigrant (however they got here) who pays for legal worker status under the bill, and include these as part of the package. I know, Conservatives will scream about the cost, as they always do. But I believe that the investment now will pay off very well in the future, when we really do have a society that functions as one, instead of creating a permanent underclass of immigrants (whether they are legal or not).

CORRECTION: In the comments, IndyVoter points out that there were some limited immigration quotas, mostly directed at Chinese, prior to 1921; Also, I had originally written 1923, but after reviewing his link, I can see that I was off by two on the year that the sharp change from the 'Emma Lazarus' America to the 'Minuteman militia' America occurred (and so corrected the above post). In keeping with the stated policy that we have on Deep Thought, I am publically acknowleging the error. This is the fifth such retraction I have made in 272 posts, so I am still counting a 98% accuracy rate.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure your statement about all immigrants being legal prior to 1923 is correct, Eli. This link indicates that the US had anti-immigration statutes as early as 1862 aimed at the Chinese, and my recollection was that there were quotas on total immigration in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

Anonymous said...

There's definitely areas in the 50 states where you don't need to learn English to survive in this country, but economically you're hurting yourself - significantly - by not learning English. Parents who discourage their kids from learning English are doing them a great disservice. Even in Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking territory, people who are bilingual get much better paying jobs (and not just in the tourism industry).

I'm not familiar with the specifics of McCain-Kennedy, but I agree that providing English language classes as part of the transition makes a lot of sense.