American Values: Under Trump, Federal Immigration Program Switches Focus From ‘Integration’ to ‘Assimilation’

A U.S. government immigration initiative has changed its name from one aimed at the “integration” of immigrants to one aimed at their “assimilation.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a government agency focusing on lawful immigration, runs a grant scheme to fund programs that help lawful immigrants prepare for citizenship.

This year, the initiative is called the Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program, while last year, it was the Citizenship and Integration Grant Program (emphasis added). The change was spotted by Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of Upskilling Policy at the National Skills Coalition, and confirmed by Newsweek by looking at a cached version of the USCIS site via the Wayback Machine.

Justin Gest, a Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Era of Immigration and Inequality, tells Newsweek that the two words have come to have quite different connotations.

“The history of the words assimilation and integration are not necessarily that different,” Gest says, but “through selective use, and adoption by different idealogues and commentators, they have developed divergent connotations.”

“Integration implies a two-way process, whereby the immigrant adapts to their new environment, and those in the new environment attempt to facilitate the adaptation and co-evolve with immigrants themselves.”

 “Assimilation has come to connote a one-way process, where there is a monolithic understanding—a static understanding— of what society is like, and that the immigrants hold all responsibility for adapting to it, and society is subject to no obligation to change to welcome or facilitate the arrival of newcomers.”

Gest cautioned against “viewing a very, very small change to a federal program name as a broader indicator” of the Trump administration’s entire strategy.

But he said, “Federal bureaucracy does not change programs or program names without purpose, and this is a communication choice in what they believe integration-oriented programs should be doing.

“The change in a very subtle, stylistic way conveys this administration’s understanding of integration as a one-way process, rather than a mutual, collective process.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for USCIS tells Newsweek, “The name change simply reflects USCIS’s renewed emphasis on encouraging new immigrants to be part of our national family through shared political principles, a sense of community and common identity as Americans.”

They pointed to a new requirement for organizations interested in the grant, added this year, that programs applying for funding “must incorporate student learning activities that promote civic and linguistic assimilation.”

“By incorporating English language and civics instruction and fostering a greater understanding and connection to key principles and institutions,” the spokesperson said, “the grant program strives to encourage attachment to the Constitution and the American ideals that strengthen this nation and secure our homeland.”

Gest added that the name change “is consistent with the Trump administration and Trump campaign’s use of nostalgia...in its portrayal of American culture and society.

“Donald Trump has overtly sought to re-establish a bygone era of what he portrays as safety, stability and prosperity, and in trying to re-establish that era there is the implication that that era A) existed, and B) was something that actually was stable and that was static. Whereas in reality, there has never been that kind of stability in the American identity or American society.”

Join the Discussion