Assimilation Must Factor into Immigration Debate

The president’s speech Monday evening may not settle the argument over what to do about enforcing our borders or creating a new guest worker program, but one part of the speech should unite all Americans. Unfortunately, it’s the issue that often gets short shrift in the immigration debate but ought to be at its center. President Bush put it this way: “We must honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one nation out of many peoples.” Fear that the newest batch of immigrants from Latin America can’t, or refuse to, be absorbed into the cultural, social, and economic mainstream of American life drives much of the anti-immigrant sentiment so prevalent today.

I’ve mustered statistics endlessly in previous columns to demonstrate that such fears are overdrawn — Hispanics are not only assimilating as each group before them has, but at a more rapid pace than many previous groups — but for the moment, I want to put those arguments aside and talk about the value of assimilation. Part of the reason so many people worry that Hispanics aren’t assimilating is that we’ve quit emphasizing the importance of assimilation in our national dialogue.

Almost 30 years ago, when I was editor of the magazine American Educator, I published a series on the immigrant experience in the early 20th century. It featured photographs taken in about 1913, when the rate of immigration was higher than it is today, along with a story on a Smithsonian exhibit that recreated a typical classroom in New York City at that time, including copies of textbooks and other materials.

In every lesson plan and schoolbook, the emphasis was on “Americanizing” the newcomers. Teachers taught children not only civics lessons, but how to dress like other Americans, and to adopt American standards of hygiene — something almost unthinkable in today’s environment, where many teachers are more worried about damaging students’ self-esteem than actually teaching them how to be successful.

And of course, learning English was a prerequisite, especially since the typical classroom of the era had 50 or more children speaking at least half a dozen different languages. President Bush’s words Monday night would have resonated well: “English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America,” he noted. “English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices, from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own. When immigrants assimilate and advance in our society, they realize their dreams, they renew our spirit, and they add to the unity of America.” Certainly the immigrants of the early 20th century understood this and succeeded despite the naysayers of the time.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that worries were common that the Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, and other immigrants of an earlier era would never become truly American. When you look at the pictures from the period, you see that the children looked very much like immigrant kids today — most were dark-skinned and noticeably shy, as if they felt out of place in their new surroundings. Although we like to talk about the immigrants of that generation as “European,” most came from Southern and Eastern Europe and weren’t exactly embraced as fellow countrymen by their Northern European predecessors.

The most famous immigration restrictionist of that era, Yale-educated lawyer Madison Grant, once remarked, “New York is becoming a cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel.” Grant feared the very idea of a melting pot. But a look today at the descendants of those immigrant arrivals from the early 1900s reveals not an ethnic horror but the typical American.

Assimilation is the most powerful fact of America’s immigration history. But it didn’t happen by accident but because Americans themselves valued the concept and helped make it a reality for each new generation. We should not forget this important principle as the immigration debate moves forward.