Can America Assimilate?

The latest census seems to have been a consciousness-raising exercise--at least for the press. It has inspired a series of stories recognizing that large-scale immigration is transforming America. "Diversity" is, of course, the reigning cliche, but even while the press overuses the term, there's been a subtle and useful shift in tone and message. Stories increasingly abandon the uncritical celebration of "diversity" for a more realistic assessment that immigration also brings new social problems and tensions.

Here's a sample of recent front-page articles:

We may be glimpsing a new attitude toward immigration. What has long been ignored is America's capacity to assimilate immigrants--how many we can easily absorb. The bland assumption has been that a society as wealthy and tolerant as ours doesn't have to worry. Immigrants will enrich our culture, energize the economy and reconfirm our humanitarian heritage. Anyone who voiced doubts (who wondered, for example, whether our wealth or virtues might have limits) risked being labeled a racist or reactionary.

Well, the Census demolishes the case for complacency. The Census Bureau had estimated the nation's population would increase from 249 million in 1990 to 275 million in 2000, with about 35 percent of the gain coming from immigration. In fact, the Census counted 281 million--6 million more than estimated. Where did the extra people come from? No one knows, but the easiest explanation is illegal immigration. There are other possibilities: the Census simply may have counted some people missed in 1990. Either way, immigration--mostly legal--has had a huge impact. Already, a fifth of school-age children come from immigrant families. (Most are citizens, having been born here.)

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As a society, America's central interest lies in assimilating these families. This means more than having them join the economic mainstream. It also means that they think of themselves primarily as Americans. If the United States simply becomes a collection of self-designated "minorities," then the country will have changed for the worse.

We first need to admit that assimilation is desirable. The term has fallen into disrepute because it's viewed "by its antagonists as a means of imposing cultural conformity on America's minority groups," as Peter Salins recently wrote in his book "Assimilation, American Style." To those who worship "multiculturalism" and "diversity," assimilation is dated and detestable.

American assimilation never demanded this sort of rigid cultural conformity, said Salins, now provost of the State University of New York. People could retain ethnic traditions and affections. Italian-Americans could still love Italy. But assimilation did require three things, he argued. First, immigrant families had to adopt English as the national language. Second, they had "to take pride in their American identity" and the country's democratic principles. And, finally, they had to embrace the so-called Protestant ethic--"to be self-reliant, hardworking, and morally upright."

Assimilation is mostly a spontaneous process, driven by the economy, popular culture and the belief in individual opportunity. People are caught in an updraft of activity, new ideas and temptations. A Washington Post survey last year asked Latinos the language of their TV programs. Among the first generation, 31 percent watched mainly Spanish programs and 42 percent watched "equally" in Spanish and English; by the third generation, 88 percent watched English programs. On many issues, the attitudes of third-generation Latinos mirrored those of other Americans. But assimilation has never been easy for immigrants or Americans already here.

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That's true now. Progress for many low-skilled immigrants has been grudging. About 30 percent of immigrant children are in poverty, says a report from the Urban Institute; in 1999, wages for immigrant Hispanic men were only 68 percent those of U.S.-born workers. Meanwhile, there's always a danger of an anti-immigrant backlash, particularly if there's a recession. Americans exhibit spasms of prejudice and insecurity. Benjamin Franklin once complained about German immigrants, "who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them." There are many stains on the national record: anti-Irish sentiment in the 1840s; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring Chinese immigrants; the Immigration Act of 1924, whose quotas tried to limit Italian and Jewish immigration.

We may face a paradox. To benefit from immigration, we may need a little less of it. People need time to adjust. American institutions (schools, hospitals) and sensibilities can be overwhelmed by too many newcomers--a reality ignored in the recent economic boom, when the demand for workers seemed insatiable. We may also need to favor skilled over unskilled immigrants, further improving the odds for assimilation. Of course, all these controversial propositions pose difficult philosophical and practical problems. But we aren't debating them. This is neglect--and not benign.

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