Do immigrants assimilate? Generally, yes, confirms Alex Nowraseth in this guest post
Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two of the smartest conservative thinkers today, have spilt much ink worrying over immigrant assimilation. Salam is more pessimistic, choosing titles like “The Melting Pot is Broken” and “Republicans Need a New Approach to Immigration” (with the descriptive url: “Immigration-New-Culture-War”) while relying on a handful of academic papers for support. Douthat presents a more nuanced, Burkean think-piece reacting to assimilation’s supposed decline, relying more on Salam for evidence.
Their worries fly against recent evidence that immigrant assimilation is proceeding quickly in the United States. There’s never been a greater quantity of expert and timely quantitative research that shows immigrants are still assimilating.
The first piece of research is the National Academy of Science’s 2015 book titled The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. At 520 pages, it’s a thorough, brilliant summation of the relevant academic literature on immigrant assimilation that ties the different strands of research into a coherent story. Bottom line: Assimilation is never perfect and always takes time, but it’s going very well.
One portion of the National Academy of Science’s book finds that much assimilation occurs through a process called ethnic attrition, which is caused by immigrant inter-marriage with natives either of the same or different ethnic groups. Assimilation is also quickened with second or third generation Americans marry those from other, longer-settled ethnic or racial groups. The children of these intermarriages are much less likely to identify ethnically with their more recent immigrant ancestors and, due to spousal self-selection, to be more economically and educationally integrated as well. Ethnic attrition is one reason why the much-hyped decline of the white majority is greatly exaggerated.
In an earlier piece, Salam focuses on ethnic attrition but exaggerated the degree to which it declined by confusing stocks of ethnics in the United States with the flow of new immigrants. He also emphasises the decrease in immigrant inter-marriage caused by the 1990-2000 influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. That decrease is less dire than he reports. According to another 2007 paper, 32 percent of U.S.-born Mexican-American men married outside of their race or ethnicity while 33 percent of women did (I write about this in more detail here). That’s close to the 1990 rate of intermarriage reported for all Hispanics in the study Salam favored. The “problem” disappeared.
The second set of research is a July 2015 book entitled Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015 that analyses immigrant and second generation integration on 27 measurable indicators across the OECD and EU countries. This report finds more problems with immigrant assimilation in Europe, especially for those from outside of the EU, but the findings for the United States are quite positive.
The third work by University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor offers a historical perspective. He compares modern immigrant civic and cultural assimilation to that of immigrants form the early 20th century (an earlier draft of his book chapter is here, the published version is available in this collection). For those of us who think early 20th century immigrants from Italy, Russia, Poland, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere assimilated successfully, Vigdor’s conclusion is reassuring:
While there are reasons to think of contemporary migration from Spanish-speaking nations as distinct from earlier waves of immigration, evidence does not support the notion that this wave of migration poses a true threat to the institutions that withstood those earlier waves. Basic indicators of assimilation, from naturalization to English ability, are if anything stronger now than they were a century ago [emphasis added].
American identity in the United States (similar to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) is not based on nationality or race nearly as much as it is in the old nation states of Europe, likely explaining some of the better assimilation and integration outcomes here.
Besides ignoring the huge and positive new research on immigrant assimilation, there are a few other issues with Douthat’s piece.
Douthat switches back and forth between Europe and the United States when discussing assimilation, giving the impression that the challenges are similar. Treating assimilation in Europe and the United States as similar adds confusion, not clarity. Cherry-picking outcomes from Europe to support skepticism about assimilation in the United States misleads. Assimilation is a vitally important outcome for immigrants and their descendants but Europe and the United States have vastly different experiences.
Douthat also argues that immigrant cultural differences can persist just like the various regional cultures have done so in the United States. That idea, used most memorably in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, is called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement (DFES). Under that theory, the creation and persistence of regional cultural differences requires the near-total displacement of the local population by a foreign one, as happened in the early settlement of the United States.
However, DFES actually gives reasons to be optimistic about immigrant assimilation because Douthat misses a few crucial details when he briefly mentioned it. First, as Fischer and others have noted, waves of immigrants have continuously assimilated into the settled regional American cultures since the initial settlement – that is the point of DFES. The first effective settlements set the regional cultures going forward and new immigrants assimilate into those cultures.
Second, DFES predicts that today’s immigrants will assimilate into America’s regional cultures (unless almost all Americans quickly die and are replaced by immigrants). The American regional cultures that immigrants are settling into are already set so they won’t be able to create persistent new regional cultures here. America’s history with DFES is not a reason to worry about immigrant assimilation today and should supply comfort to those worried about it.
Immigrants and their children are assimilating well into American society. We shouldn’t let assimilation issues in Europe overwhelm the vast empirical evidence that it’s proceeding as it always has in the New World.
Alex Nowrasteh is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere.
His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice. Alex has appeared on Fox News, Bloomberg, and numerous television and radio stations across the United States. He is the coauthor, with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, of the booklet Open Immigration: Yea and Nay (Encounter Broadsides, 2014).
He is a native of Southern California and received a BA in economics from George Mason University and a Master of Science in economic history from the London School of Economics.
- “Both in the US and in Australasia, immigrants and would-be immigrants are election fodder. They’re called ‘illegals.’ They’re called ‘boat people.’ Come to Australia by boat, or the US by river, (or try to navigate the thickets of their immigration ‘service’ to seek for yourself and your family a better life) and you’ll see the lamp beside the golden door snuffed out, and your huddled masses pissed upon.
“Immigrants, who once built America and Australasia, are now the new scapegoat for everything. But as President Bush's former press secretary Tony Snow observed, ‘Immigration is not the pox neo-Know-Nothings make it out to be... Before someone razes Lady Liberty and decides to erect a wall to ‘protect’ America from the world, shouldn't we at least spend a little time trying to get our facts straight?’”
Immigration and the Statue of Bigotry – NOT PC, 2103
- “In a bizarre parallel with the “safe spaces” on American campuses that students demand to avoid having to challenge their stunted young minds, Susan Devoy backs the Auckland Regional Migrant Services who intend to ensure that new people to our western country should not have to encounter Christmas, lest it offend many of the reasons they probably departed their last country of habitation.”
Susan Devoy fails to fight for chance to teach new immigrants – NOT PC
- “As a commentator asked yesterday: ”Can a civilisation cowed by campus millennials summon the resolve to defeat Islamic terrorists?” If these awkward kids see the west’s intellectual and political leaders so brazenly apologetic about the values of their own culture, especially when the contrast between life and anti-life is so stark, then why in hell (those few who are seduced must wonder) should anyone at all take these values at all seriously?”
And, into that vacuum stepped Islam … – NOT PC
- “Europe threw open its gates to open immigration back in the late 1960s. By 1974 trade between East and West was an imperative-- it was oil of course; rich, dark, copious oil, a feature of life-enhancing benefit to the West. The reciprocal of this bargain, aside from money, was immigration, a feature of life-enhancing benefit to the East. Thus began the Euro-Arab dialogue adopted throughout member States of the new European Union - only multiculturalism did not require that those immigrants assimilate into European life … The liberal policy-makers left themselves no moral room to assert the rightful dominance of the central ideas that their own civilisations were built on … ”
Unity through Diversity Equals Cultural Death – Olivia Pierson, NOT PC
- “So, these disenfranchised immigrants are, by and large, products of the European welfare states. Likewise, heavy labour restrictions - particularly so in France - are preventing immigrants from working their way up the social ladder. Without any way to get up, many young immigrants turn to crime and gangs to make up for lost self-esteem. This can also lead to the spread of dangerous ideas such as jihad, among Muslim youth. The welfare state and French-style social democracy provide a disincentive and make it harder to climb the social ladder and assimilate into the local culture, be it French, British, Italian or Greek.”
Welfare Strikes Again – Callum McPetrie, NOT PC, 2010