In the past week, the discussion of the immigration reform bill has been colored by the bombing in Boston allegedly perpetrated by two immigrants to the United States.  The horror and confusion surrounding that act has fed opponents of immigration reform to feel even more justified in their resistance. Of particular interest, from a rhetorical perspective, is the discussion of a supposed lack of assimilation among recent immigrant groups and a call by conservative commentators for “patriotic assimilation.”

Last Friday, on her talk show, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham lamented the fact that we cannot evaluate immigrants on their level of assimilation because it is politically incorrect: “So we can say someone is potentially unstable who’s an American citizen, but if someone is potentially not assimilating as a foreigner then we can’t raise any issues about that.”

John O’Sullivan, of the National Review Online, also worried about assimilation – specifically “patriotic assimilation,” a term coined by John Fonte of the Hudson institute. Fonte provides this definition of “patriotic assimilation.” “By patriotic assimilation I mean that immigrants essentially adopt American civic values and the American heritage as their own. “

Sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee reject a more dated definition of assimilation, implied in Fonte’s work. That definition, by Milton Gordon, found “middle-class cultural patterns of, largely, white Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon origins” as the marker of “over-all American culture.”

Alba and Nee argue for a new definition of assimilation that recognizes a reciprocal nature to the process. They assert:

Assimilation, as a form of ethnic change, may occur through changes taking place in groups on both sides of the boundary. . . We define assimilation as the decline of an ethnic distinction and its corollary cultural and social differences. . . Individuals’ ethnic origins become less and less relevant in relation to the members of another ethnic group. . . and individuals on both sides of the boundary see themselves more and more as alike. . .

How do you define assimilation?

Is it a reciprocal or unidirectional experience?

Should it be included in any discussion of immigration reform?

What does “patriotic assimilation” mean to you?

What does it mean to be American?

What are “American civic values” ?

What is “American heritage”?

How might an immigrant demonstrate an acceptance of those concepts?

Share →
  • Rachael D. Goodman, Ph.D.

    This is such a complex and important topic. I’m concerned that there is an emphasis on assimilation (out of the tragedy in Boston), when research supports that having a bi-cultural identity is actually a very positive part of developing and thriving in a new country. I think the ideas presented about assimilation in the media and public discourse seem to come, in part, from racism and “American exceptionalism” which perpetuate the ideas of supremacy of one group and marginalization of “other” groups. I think we should be concerned about the impact of further marginalizing immigrant and “minority” (I’m not a fan of that term, but I’m using it purposefully here) groups. There is quite a bit of oversimplification in the use of terms like “American heritage” or “American identity” — often these are used to describe White individuals of Western European descent, which of course is not inclusive of all the individuals and cultures who are Americans.

    • WendyFeliz

      I remember always thinking the idea of assimilation was bad. Integration was good. I suppose because to me assimilation meant giving up things like language and culture while integration was being able to maintain both ethnic identify, mixed with American identity. A love for Country, mixed with a respect of where we came from (or our ancestors). Why is assimilation more desired?

      • Rachel

        This is a great discussion. I think that these terms mean a great deal to us who work in this field, but for the average American, may be less nuanced. This may especially be the case for “receiving communities” – the long-time residents of the communities where immigrants settle, for whom growing diversity may feel unsettling. In my own community, there was a lot of concern that immigrants didn’t want to fit in or be a part of the community – and yet, there was a chronic waitlist of 2,000 people to take English classes that suggested, very much to the contrary, that immigrants wanted to be part of the community. Most folks don’t have the opportunity to see this desire – or to interact with immigrants much at all – and that can lead to a lot of misperception that newcomers aren’t “fitting in,” which in turn creates a lot of emotional response to this issue. Using the right terminology is always important, but more important, I think, is having the conversation.

        Integration means that there is a process of adaptation – for immigrants to adapt, of course, and also for receiving communities to become familiar with their new neighbors. Regardless of what language we use, I think it’s important to make sure that, as the debate unfolds, all Americans have the opportunity to see that when
        immigrants and U.S. born Americans come together to exchange the assets and culture that both bring, it creates positive opportunities for both sides.