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How long does it take for immigrants to assimilate into American society?


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Of all the maddening complexities that make it hard for the American people to decide what should be done about immigrants, the problem of assimilation may carry the most emotional impact. All those people who look different, speak a different language and eat different food -- will they ever blend into American society the way previous immigrant groups have? Or will they be a quasi-alien presence down through the decades of the coming century?

One way or another, we have been arguing about this question in America for the past 170 years, since Germans and Irish began arriving in our largest cities in massive numbers. We were an Anglo-Saxon Protestant society: The Irish and many of the Germans were Catholics. Would they be taking orders from the Pope rather than the institutions of American authority? Much of the elite thought so. It turned out to be a ludicrous concern.

Half a century later, the issue was immigration from Italy and from the Pale of Jewish settlement in Russia. The question then was generally not religion per se but the adaptability of the poor from Southern and Eastern Europe to the modern United States. The Jews, Poles and Italians dressed, spoke and behaved so exotically on the streets of New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. How could they represent the future of American society? This wasn't a concern that dwelt mainly on the fringes of American politics. To a remarkable extent, these were the beliefs of the country's best-educated, most affluent and most influential citizens.

The odd thing about these arguments over immigration was that they tended to be self-contradictory. On the one hand, nativists argued that immigrants would never assimilate and would remain aliens in every important way -- religion, culture, politics, the fundamental values of Western democracy. On the other hand, it was feared with equal vehemence that these millions of newcomers would intermarry with native-born Americans, dilute the quality of the nation's genetic stock and produce what was referred to frequently as "a mongrel race." This was more than a little crazy. If foreigners couldn't assimilate to Anglo-Saxon culture, why would Anglo-Saxons want to marry them? Still, both of these ideas remained current in national political debate on into the 1920s, and in large part led to the exclusionist immigration bill that was passed by Congress in 1924 and remained in effect for more than 40 years.

Today, at a time when Jews are essentially treated as WASPs when they apply to elite private colleges, and Irish-, Italian- and Polish-Americans have become overwhelmingly middle-class, all of this sounds like the quaint mythology of an unrecognizable time. And to a great extent, it is. But the dilemma of assimilation never really went away, and in the past decade, it has re-emerged as powerfully as ever.

WE ALL KNOW the reason why. The foreign-born population of the United States was less than 10 million when the nation's borders were opened up by law in 1965; today it is nearly 40 million. About a quarter of this immigrant cohort has arrived from Asia; to a great extent, that portion is middle-class and upwardly mobile and has attracted comparatively little controversy. It is the 20 million immigrants from Latin America, a majority from Mexico and many of them in this country illegally, who have returned the question of assimilation to the forefront of public debate.

And it was no less a figure than Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington, by no means a proponent of crude racism, who raised the issue most bluntly in his 2004 book "Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity."

Well aware that the assimilation issue had been a red herring for most of the nation's history, Huntington nevertheless insisted that it was relevant in dealing with Mexican immigrants in the past couple of decades. He offered some provocative numbers: Rates of high-school graduation for the Mexican-born in America were roughly half those of the foreign-born population as a whole. Poverty rates for Mexican immigrants in 1998 were more than double those of any Asian group and considerably higher than the rates for other Hispanic newcomers. Mexicans were much more likely to marry within their own ethnic enclave than any other immigrant population, and more likely to identify emotionally with their country of origin than with their adopted home.

In short, Huntington insisted, the massive Mexican immigration of the 1980s and '90s constituted "a major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States." Nativists may have cried wolf over and over again in earlier centuries, but now the nation was faced with the genuine prospect of a large alien enclave likely to plague it for decades. In his view, the Mexican influx was simply so large that historical comparisons suggesting more rapid assimilation were irrelevant. Mexicans in America were generating such a large in-group that they had relatively little incentive to venture out of it.

Huntington's analysis was vulnerable to challenge on several counts -- and "challenge" may be too mild a word for the response it attracted -- but Huntington did perform one valuable service. He refocused interest in the seemingly eternal question of assimilation. How important is it, and how might we begin to measure it?

Four years later, some interesting answers have begun to emerge. They are coming mostly from the work of Jacob Vigdor, a professor of economics at Duke University who has spent the past year developing a statistical index of immigrant assimilation, in collaboration with the Manhattan Institute in New York.

Vigdor believes that we will never understand assimilation as long as we continue to assume that it is a simple, unitary idea: that people either are assimilated or they aren't. He makes the plausible point that there are at least three distinct forms of immigrant assimilation that one might be interested in and want to measure. There is economic assimilation -- the pace at which newcomers reach middle-class salary levels and acquire their own homes. There's cultural assimilation -- the rate at which they learn English and marry native-born Americans rather than fellow- immigrants. And there is civic assimilation, measured by such things as naturalization and military service.

THE CONCLUSION of Vigdor's study is that each of these brands of assimilation operates on its own schedule and applies to different ethnic groups in strikingly different ways. Asian immigrants are very quick to assimilate economically. They learn English easily, graduate from high school at impressive rates and launch and successfully operate small businesses of their own. On the other hand, they are relatively slow to assimilate culturally, at least according to the criteria that Vigdor uses. They cling to traditional religious practices and look for marriage partners within their own tight-knit immigrant cohort, rather than marrying into other ethnic groups. One's view of Asians as more or less assimilated depends to a great extent on which of these categories one considers most important.

Mexicans are very weak on the index of civic assimilation. They are far less likely to vote than other immigrants, or even to take out naturalization papers. They maintain political ties to Mexico, just as Huntington noticed, and in many cases return there to live after a period of years in the United States. The numbers on voting and naturalization aren't exactly a surprise: Millions of Mexicans are in this country illegally -- they couldn't become citizens or vote even if they wanted to.

But Vigdor argues that the tendency of many new arrivals to tune out from American politics doesn't necessarily imply much about prospects for long-term civic assimilation. The data for Italians who came to America early in the 20th century are actually rather similar to the data for Mexicans now. They were slow to become American citizens and traveled back and forth to Italy on a regular basis. It's been estimated that roughly one-third of those who came here from Italy in the wave of migration a hundred years ago ended up returning for good. But those who remained here did eventually become citizens and vote in numbers roughly comparable to the national average. It just took them a while.

A careful reading of Vigdor's research suggests to me that panic at this point about a permanent enclave of alien foreigners in our midst is about as misguided as it was a century ago, however different the ethnic details might be. What it doesn't suggest is that we ought to throw the borders wide open and welcome another 10 million as soon as they want to move here. Communities that are heavily affected by the most recent immigration have legitimate concerns: schools that can't handle the overflow and inadequate housing stock that invites dangerous living conditions and the flouting of local codes. Long-time residents of any community have a right to be concerned about those things -- and not to be derided as racists every time they bring them up.

This is the moment, if there ever was one, to bring our borders under control and slow down the pace of immigration for a little while. Once we do that, we may be in a position to ponder the implications of Jacob Vigdor's research, and reassure ourselves that, in the long run, the American economy, polity and culture are not going to be destroyed by immigrants from south of the border, any more than they were by immigrants from across the ocean a century ago.

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