Columns, Opinion

Diamonds and Rust: Assimilation nation

Immigration has always been a hot-button issue, but no one can deny the profound impact immigrants have had on this country. The United States was founded on the ideal that anyone with a strong enough work ethic can make it here. Though we have sometimes strayed from this message, we can still thank our lucky stars for those who have immigrated here.

Joel Herbert

Yet, we must wonder if immigrants are thankful for us. Many have found safety and other forms of security here, which is obviously a positive, but what about culture? What about a home and an identity?

The difficulty of finding, and then sticking, to one’s identity is made 10 times more difficult for immigrants who must grapple with the added difficulty of assimilation.

So, let’s look at what the U.S. does well in terms of assimilation, and what needs improvement.

As the land of opportunity, it makes sense the U.S. provides greater means for immigrants to move upward socially. Despite the growing wage and social mobility gap, they have actually been able to maintain a strong position in the world of entrepreneurship. The opportunity for immigrants to own and run businesses allows for continued socio-economic growth, even in the face of increasing inequality.

Business ownership also contributes to a greater sense of autonomy, which lets immigrants embrace the notion that they — and only they — have the power to change their trajectory.


However, the success of most immigrants is not defined solely on their willingness to work, but on their willingness to sacrifice.

An obvious element in the immigrant story is sacrifice. Packing up and leaving your homeland in order to have a small shot at better opportunities requires giving up a lot in your life. 

However, the real sacrifice, which is arguably the most difficult, comes after one has immigrated into the country. Upon arriving, immigrants must choose how they adapt to U.S. culture and lifestyle, and what parts of their own culture they want to keep. 

Unfortunately, the amount one sacrifices to adapt to the American lifestyle is directly related to the amount of success one encounters.

As Peter Skerry, a political science professor at Boston College, wrote in a Brookings Institution article, immigrants must abide by three unwritten rules to find success. First, English must be accepted as the national language. Second, they must ascribe to a Protestant work ethic, which is defined by its focus on individualism and self-reliance. Finally, they must believe in their American identity and follow egalitarian principles.

While it’s not necessarily immoral to emphasize certain aspects of American culture, requiring immigrants to give up their own identity for a shot at success is wrong, and actually goes against traditional American ideals.

Assimilation puts an undue burden on immigrants by requiring them to be almost superhuman in their willingness to sacrifice themselves for something greater. However, it does not have to be this way.

In a perfect world, we want a system of immigration that allows immigrants to establish themselves in the U.S. while also maintaining whatever level of individuality they want. Luckily, if we stick to a system of participation, rather than assimilation, then this perfect world can easily become reality.

Participation-based immigration, sometimes referred to as integration, is defined by its effort to incorporate individuals into a society as equals. Conversely, assimilation is more of a forceful requirement for individuals to become part of a society. The difference here is subtle, but it is important.

While assimilation makes individuals blend into a society, integration makes society blend to its individuals.

An integrative approach to immigration would make way for individualization, which favors equity over equality. Integration would allow those whose cultures are significantly different from ours to learn such things as the English language and typical American customs — all with the goal of providing a way for them to participate in American society — while letting those whose cultures are more or less similar flourish sooner.

Participation-based immigration also gives Americans the chance to have a greater cultural understanding by increasing the amount of visible diversity in nearly any given setting. The lack of pressure to assimilate would allow immigrants to hold on to the parts of their home culture they admire, which would in turn expose the U.S. to different cultures.

If we can foster participation over assimilation, then we may be able to provide immigrants a system that prioritizes individuality over commonality and allows them to fully realize their potential as individuals and as Americans.

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