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Immigration: Assimilation and the measure of an American

Immigration reform, making its way through Congress, and the Boston Marathon bombings – allegedly committed by two Chechen immigrants – has raised heated debate about how we measure the assimilation of newcomers civically, culturally, economically, and even patriotically. 

By Correspondent / July 7, 2013

Immigration: This story about immigrant assimilation in the US is one of a six-part cover story project in the July 8 & 15 double issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Gary Hershorn/Reuters

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If there were such a thing as a classic American immigrant story, it might sound something like the one Arlene tells of her family.

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  • Graphic Assimilation Index
    (Source: Jacob Vigdor, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research/Graphic: Rich Clabaugh, Staff)

Her immigrant parents each arrived in New York City poor but eager, searching for a better way of life. They found work – and each other – in the garment district; they married, had children, and sent their girls to parochial school where nuns taught proper English.

Arlene's parents told her and her sister that here, in the United States of America, they could do anything. So the girls went to college, became professionals, married, and had children of their own – English-speaking children who would never consider themselves anything but American.

It is a familiar, almost nostalgic, narrative; one that evokes sepia-toned photos of Ellis Island, Little Italy boccie players, German grandmas, or Eastern European deli proprietors.

But there is a twist.

Arlene's last name is Garcia. Her parents came from the Caribbean, not Europe. Today she lives in Lawrence, Mass., a city north of Boston that is more than 73 percent Hispanic. She is fluent in Spanish and English, switching seamlessly one recent morning at work answering the phone at Esperanza Academy, a tuition-free, private school for low-income girls. She is married to a Dominican man (albeit one whose name – Johnny Mackenzie – is far more gringo than hers) and returns regularly to the Dominican Republic (although these days she far prefers the Punta Cana resort area to the villages of her ancestors).

Is she assimilated? She laughs at the question: "Well, it depends on what you mean by 'assimilated.' "

That, it turns out, is a controversial question. And it is one that has moved in recent months to the forefront of public debate, as lawmakers wrestle with immigration reform, and as the Boston Marathon bombings – allegedly perpetrated by two ethnic Chechen immigrants – ushered in a new wave of speculation about newcomers' ability, or desire, to integrate into American culture.

On one side are conservative officials and pundits who worry that a flood of Spanish-speaking immigrants and a reverence for "multiculturalism" have led to a population of immigrants in the US unappreciative of and unconnected to their new country. On the other are a slew of academics, armed with studies from think tanks and longitudinal research projects, who say that assimilation these days is as strong as it has ever been, that immigrants as a group are still more enthusiastic about the country than the native born, that immigrants' children tend to do better than their parents by a host of socioeconomic indicators, and that within three generations an immigrant family fully identifies as American.

This happens across the country, they say, even in regions such as the Southeast that are not traditional immigrant destinations.

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