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.
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In the 1990s, Princeton University's Alejandro Portes, considered one of the leading thinkers on immigrant integration, helped develop a theory of "segmented assimilation," which at a basic level says that because American society is so unequal, there are a number of social places where an immigrant can fit – including the social underclass.Skip to next paragraph
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Often referred to as "downward assimilation," this is when people join gangs and adopt a street culture that is quite American, but not the sort of American that the Hudson Institute had in mind.
Indeed, the pressure for the sort of assimilation described by the Hudson Institute can often backfire, Professor Portes says. (He also takes issue with the word "assimilation," preferring "integration" or "incorporation.")
"Nativists take the position that they don't want any immigrants at all – they want to build fences," Portes says. "The other position is to turn [immigrants] into Americans as quickly as possible – this is forced assimilation.... The problem is that the first generation cannot be turned into Americans instantly. And the attempt to do so is often counterproductive. It creates fear and alienation, it denigrates the culture and language of immigrants themselves, and it denigrates it to their kids."
Not only does this put the country as a whole at a disadvantage – after all, Portes says, with the global economy, citizens should understand multiple languages and cultures – it also puts children at the risk of downward assimilation because it hurts their relationship with their parents.
"The idea that the habits and foodways and the religious patterns of immigrants are not worth it and should be eliminated – that is counterproductive," he says. "In the history of this country, groups like Italians and Germans and Poles gradually developed a phased integration into American society. And today, elements of immigrant culture – the Irish, the Italian – are celebrated as positive parts of American culture."
'It's the texture'
In Ms. Garcia's household, there is a regular debate over sleepovers. Her Dominican-born husband cannot, for the life of him, understand why their 14-year-old daughter would want to stay at someone else's house for the night. This is not atypical, she said. Dominicans, and many other Latinos, just don't do sleepovers.
"He'll say, 'You have a perfectly good bed here!'" Garcia says, laughing. "I'll say, 'Johnny, just let her be.' And then he'll say, 'You know, if there's a fire, you know they're not going to be worried about Marleyna. Oh no. They're going to get their own child first.' I'm like, 'Oh my goodness, can you be any more dramatic?' But then I'm awake all night thinking about fires."
She laughs again. It's a far cry from the assimilation debates in her childhood, when the nuns insisted to her father that they speak English at home.
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"He said, with that accent of his, 'Seester, out of the home, you da boss,'" Garcia recalls. " 'Inside of the home, I dee boss. But I promise you, she will learn to speak good English. But she will also learn to speak our language.' "
Now she worries that her own daughter doesn't know enough Spanish to talk with her cousins.
"But this is what's so wonderful about this country," she says with a smile. "It's the texture. The stories."