A critique of the “assimilation” concept

The idea that immigrants fail to assimilate is a major critique of immigration offered by restrictionists, and one that is widely popular. Unfortunately, the concept of assimilation has suffered from a form of mission creep as people cram more and more into the idea.

There are four broad kinds of things that people mean by assimilation. I will argue that only the first two categories genuinely deserves the “assimilation” label — and the second category only applies to citizenship, not to guest worker/student status or even to long term residency. The use of the term “assimilation” for the other two categories obfuscates more than it illuminates.

#1: Assimilation to the culture-specific, value-agnostic norms of the host country

There are some conventions that differ from country to country, but people living in the same geographic area benefit by following the same convention. Language is an obvious example. What side of the road to drive on is another. In this context, assimilation by immigrants to the host country’s conventions and norms makes life easier for everybody. Thus, I take linguistic assimilation seriously. An immigrant from the US to France should learn French in order to better communicate and interact with natives, even though a tourist might be able to get away with English and a few broken French phrases.

For similar reasons, an immigrant from the UK to the US had better assimilate quickly to the idea that automobiles drive on the right side of the road. All the more important if he/she plans to drive a vehicle, but probably useful if he/she plans to use the roads as a pedestrian, biker, or transit user.

The point here is that no claim is being made about the superiority or inferiority of the languages or conventions regarding the side of the road to drive on. Claims are being made about the coordination costs of deviation from the norms of the community, making a strong case for assimilation. So far, so good.

Note that for this category of assimilation, a significant fraction of the gains from assimilating go to the migrant himself or herself, although there are social spillovers. People with poor language skills are locked out of many jobs. Potential employers also lose out, but the bulk of the loss is experienced by the migrant. People who drive on the wrong side of the road endanger themselves as well as others (in particular, they endanger themselves more than they endanger any single other person). The positive externality of conforming to culture-specific, value-agnostic norms does suggest that there is a case for government or philanthropic help to people to assimilate into the norms.

However, there is no fundamental conflict of interest between the migrant’s goals and those of the rest of society. Further, there will be some people for whom learning the language just isn’t worth the benefit, even when externalities to society are considered. So, beyond making sure people understand the very basics, restricting migration based on these is not appropriate. However, the host society is not obligated to go out of the way to make accommodations for migrants’ linguistic differences:

  • private employers should be free to restrict access to jobs to migrants (as well as natives!) based on language skills, and to the extent that laws against private discrimination get in the way, they should be reconsidered.
  • Government institutions providing public services do not have an obligation to serve migrants in their own languages, although it may still be beneficial or appropriate for them to do so under certain circumstances (depending on how the costs and benefits compare).

The point is simply that individuals and institutions in the host society can decide how far they will personally accommodate different languages, and then leave it to migrants to decide whether they should work hard to learn the native language or can get by without.

#2: Emotional assimilation

Emotional assimilation and attachment to one’s adopted homeland is also something a lot of people have in mind when they talk of assimilation. The emotional assimilation and patriotism complaint has been made against immigration by many of the leading lights in the restrictionist movement, including Mark Krikorian, Steve Sailer, Peter Brimelow, and many others.

I’m not much of a fan of patriotism, but I think that a case could be made that immigrants who want to settle permanently in a land should at the very least not hate that land, and should have at least moderately fond feelings for it. At any rate, such feelings help to a modest degree. Again, this is a claim that can be made both for Mexican immigrants to Chile and for Chilean immigrants to Mexico. It makes sense for most immigrants to most lands.

#3: All the “good stuff”

A lot of people use “assimilation” in the looser sense of being statistically similar to the natives of the host country along various normative dimensions such as income, education levels, crime (scored negatively), and other indicators. Obviously, these are important things to look at when assessing the effects of immigration. But I question the use of the word “assimilation” to describe such comparisons.

My chief objection is that “assimilation” incorrectly sets the native standard on these matters as the aspirational norm. It ignores the fact that many immigrants are already better than natives on these normative indicators. On many of these indicators, their children move away from the better immigrant average and assimilate downward to the native norm. In the US context, crime is an example: immigrants (both in total and across ethnicities — including illegal immigrants) have lower crime rates than natives, but their children “assimilate” to the higher native crime rates.

There are also some ethnic groups of immigrants that, even after several generations, maintain higher normative averages than natives. Eyeballing the data suggests that Japanese, Chinese, and Indian immigrants to the US may be in this category.

There are obviously many categories where immigrants start off worse than natives and assimilate “upward” — Mexican immigrants to the US are one example. In many categories such as income and education level, descendants of immigrants assimilate upward from their parents to the native norms.

I’m quite okay with measurement of these, but question the “assimilation” jargon for its focus on natives as a normative ideal to strive toward.

#4: Immigrants do or think stuff I don’t like

A lot of the complaints about immigrants’ “failure to assimilate” are centered around the religious and political beliefs of immigrants, their tastes in food and music, the fact that they know foreign languages, and a variety of other things. Frankly, I find these complaints bizarre. If the person making this complaint wants to make an argument that certain religious or political beliefs are normatively better than the others, then the person should make that case — and be prepared to call out the large numbers of natives who hold the opposing view. This would reduce the objections to the third category. But the people making these arguments often don’t want to actually make this broader case. They simply define certain sets of views as the “norm” and then say that immigrants need to strive toward attaining that mix of views.

Some other random thoughts

  • See point #7 (first in the post) in Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 2.
  • In Europe, the term “assimilation” has given way to the term “integration”. There are also some conceptual differences, at least on paper: assimilation means that migrants merge into an existing native culture (perhaps adding some contributions of their own, but the focus is on migrants joining the native culture), whereas integration focuses on peaceful coexistence of different cultures with some shared values and understanding. You can get lots of information on the alleged differences between the models by Googling assimilation versus integration.
  • The United States model of assimilation has been called the “melting pot” — see my co-blogger Nathan Smith’s blog post on the subject.
  • A number of people I respect have suggested that a classical liberal minimalist state is conducive to integration and peaceful coexistence without any necessity for heavy-handed government policy to promote either assimilation or integration. There are cases where groups stay aloof from mainstream culture while coexisting peacefully. Examples in the US include the Amish, Mormons, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (I owe this point to co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther). In her blog post reflecting on her experience as a migrant to Sweden, Ladan Weheliye noted that she favored the liberal model as described by Chandran Kukathas.

The cartoon featured in the header of this post dates from 1889, and depicts the perceived failure of Irish immigrants to the US to assimilate. The original caption reads: “The mortar of assimilation — and the one element that won’t mix.”

3 thoughts on “A critique of the “assimilation” concept”

  1. Interesting post.

    I’m not a big fan of the word “assimilation” – perhaps it is because I am a migrant in Europe and, yes, “integration” is preferred. I certainly do.

    I’m not sure there are any value-neutral norms in the host country. Language in France, for example, is just loaded with all kinds of symbolic baggage. To speak basic French is not all that hard – to speak well is something even the French spend a lifetime learning. It is however one of Patrick Weil Four Pillars of French nationality and the citizenship test requires that one speak/read/write at the level of a middle-school student.

    And when I think about it in language I see what is for me the difference between integration and assimilation. Integration means that when I leave my home I speak French in the shops, to the teachers at my daughters’ schools, at my church and at my place of work.

    In my home, however, I spoke what I wished to speak which was English to my children when they were young and to my French spouse today (at his request). And sometimes that caused all kinds of trouble in particular with the teachers who said that maintaining English at home meant that my children would be academic failures and would never ever learn to speak French well. All that I viewed as an attempt to bully me into assimiliation by appealing to the well-being and future success of my offspring.

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