Monday, 29 December 2014

Should all Immigrants Assimilate?

Immigrants are a recurring phenomenon in many parts of the world and its importance will only grow in the near future. Immigrants adjust, assimilate or remain alienated and sometimes even become active agents of destruction through terrorism in their host countries.

They are either expelled or ordered to assimilate without fuss in most pull immigration countries. The simple argument is that if immigrants assimilate to the host society, discrimination decreases, immigrants contribute better according to their abilities and life becomes smoother for everyone. The counter argument is that if immigrants assimilate, they have to relinquish their own heritage and culture in order to adopt the local. This would mean that the host society is not enriched by an infusion of new ideas. 
“Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.”
Theodore Roosevelt, US president 1901-1909.

The immigrants’ difficulty of adjusting is tolerated when the economic, political and social stability in the host country is high, and as long as there is a perception of current or future benefit from the immigrant.

But come hard times and the rules of engagement change. Then immigrants are easily perceived as burdens or threats. The othering of immigrants intensify and everything wrong with the host country’s economy, society, political atmosphere and morals are promptly ascribed to the avarice, immorality, stupidity, insufficient skills or lack of commitment of the newest immigrants. Vulnerable minorities also get the same treatment sometimes.

Are there ‘good’ immigrants and ‘bad’ immigrants?

It depends on whom we ask.

Characteristics that usually get valuable ‘points’ for immigration to many rich countries nowadays:
  • Education, very specific with a high job-market demand
  • Occupation, something that locals can’t or won’t do
  • Work experience, a lot of high quality experience which generates transferrable skills
  • Language ability
  • Age (usually pensionable age immigrants are welcome only if they bring enough money and get pensions from elsewhere)

Highly skilled foreigners best suited for demanding jobs get fast-track immigration permits to Canada. Saudi Arabia requires immigrants to go out of the country immediately when job contracts expire.

Canada in the late 19th century had clear orders of preference. This reflected how similar were the immigrants to the majority of the people already living there (First Nation people were not considered in this equation).
  • British and American agriculturalists
  • French
  • Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Swiss, Finns, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians and Poles
  • Italians, Southern Slavs, Greeks and Syrians were considered less suitable for assimilation
  • Jews, Asians, Roma and Black people were the least desired as immigrants.

New Yorkers, in the 1890s, when asked which immigrants were the most desirable, mentioned Russian Jews in spite of their great contributions to society and culture.

In many countries, the results of applying these selection criteria, however, look slightly different from the brochures and application forms.
“We have a bubbling successful melting pot in this country so long as the ingredients are essentially European.”
― Jared Taylor, Convergence of Catastrophes, (2012)

How We Measure Assimilation

A fairly good definition of Assimilation: Assimilation, also called integration or incorporation, is the process by which the characteristics of members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another. Resemble is a key word here. It still allows the immigrant to retain vestiges of their own culture and does not necessarily entail total substitution of one set of characteristics with another.

A politician’s approach at definition of the assimilation situation:

 “A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in.. And how many want out.”
- Tony Blair.

Politicians, like economists, try to simplify things with assumptions that best suit their purposes. The host country’s main needs-related assumption is that they get the best highest skilled units of labour at the least input price by allowing selective immigration. It doesn’t always go that simply.
“We asked for workers. We got people instead.”       Max Frisch.

Research in USA reveals some interesting aspects of assimilation:
  • Economic and civic assimilation without significant cultural assimilation is rather common
  • Immigrants from other rich developed countries may not be better assimilated
  • Huge diversity in how different immigrant groups assimilate: best assimilators are from Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines – all countries with previous US military occupation
  • Mexican immigrants to USA show low levels of economic and civic assimilation but normal levels of cultural assimilation

The entire history of the human race is a tale of immigration. The most widely accepted theory of how human beings spread all over the earth is the “Out of Africa” theory or academically “RSOH – recent single origin hypothesis”. Depending on which theory is currently accepted, humans have been emigrating and immigrating for the last 1.8 million years. So, with immense competition, is the playing field ever fair? Here again, it depends.
“From the day he left his parents' house, Abe [Reles] had to know his father was right, that America promises everything, but he also had to know his father was wrong--America gives nothing. Those things that are promised, they cannot be worked for but must be taken, conned away with good looks, obsequiousness, mimicry; or traded for with bit of your soul or the morals of the stories your parents told; or tricked away with lies; or wrested away with brute force.”
― Rich Cohen, Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams

Why People Migrate?

People migrate for different reasons. Some people fall in love and migrate to live with their loved one. Others go in search of better jobs or better climate and then some people are forced to migrate as refugees. “It’s better for me there than here” – is the underlying belief in all migration. Push factors explain why a person leaves a certain area, while pull factors explain the choice of destination and typically these factors complement each other in migration. Considering the coming huge waves of mass migrations to Europe, knowledge of these factors would be valuable in designing suitable win-win responses.

Push factors of migration:
  • High crime rate
  • Poverty
  • War or sectarian violence
  • Inability to cope with high corruption
  • Environmental reasons – persistent drought, crop failure, too cold or too hot
  • Social instability
  • Limited opportunities for improving one’s lot in life through education etc.
Pull factors of migration:
  • Low crime rate
  • Greater affluence
  • Peace
  • Significantly lower rate of corruption
  • Better climate
  • Social stability
  • Increased opportunities for improving one’s life

Recently the UK government decided to stop saving migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as saving the drowning is perceived as pull factor for migration to the UK.

Is Assimilation a Good or Bad thing?

Like all complex questions, this generates more questions than answers.
  • Do we have a shared understanding of assimilation? How is it different from integration and adjustment?
  • What is that to which one is supposed to assimilate - Frenchness, Americanness or Chineseness such that we can measure it? If we made tests for immigrants, what happens if a large section of locals cannot pass these tests? Only 44% of Americans with a college level education pass the Citizenship test for immigrants. 
  • Does assimilation necessarily produce better contribution to and engagement with the host society? Or is the obverse true?
  • If a high percentage of indigenous (born locally) people do not assimilate well, can they also be penalised in the same way as immigrants? Immigrants’ point of entry or deportation are usually airports, land borders or harbours, so what is the point of entry or deportation of indigenous people who do not assimilate?
Immigrating or being an immigrant is not something that one engages in flippantly. Immigrating usually means uprooting your life; sometimes you lose your property, friends, social connections, means of livelihood, professional and social influence and even your identity. For some immigrants life turns for the better and for some others it is the end of living and the beginning of survival. Being forced to give up their food habits and having to live on English food alone might scare the living daylight out of most immigrants and even Brits in Britain, and the British food scene would lose most of its wonderful diversity. The annual average of £425, that people in UK spend yearly on ethnic food shows that such a horror scenario is extremely unlikely.

Photo source:

Peter Salins, in his book Assimilation, American Style (1997), presents 3 criteria for assimilation:
  1. Immigrants must accept English as the national language
  2. Work and live by the protestant ethic (self-reliant, hardworking and morally upright)
  3. Be proud of the American identity and believe in America’s liberal democratic and egalitarian principles
This kind of dialectic of assimilation is rather problematic. 
  • Many people also seem to de-assimilate, as they get older. They might get disillusioned with what they assimilated to and entertain a nostalgic fondness of what they imagine as having ‘lost’.
  • Many people have no clear idea how such vague concepts e.g. protestant ethics really means and don’t find many locals living it either.
  • The identity that the host society gives to immigrants may significantly differ from how they’d like to be seen. A person may want to be seen as a happy and singing Neapolitan rather than an Italian stereotype or as a successful engineer rather than as a Korean. An immigrant from Guatemala or Mexico does not necessarily see herself as a “Hispanic” or “Latino”. 
  • Does assimilation mean adopting the thinking patterns of others? I am reminded almost weekly: “You can’t think like that!” and my response always is “I just did”. Do we really think thoughts? I’d say that we just register and react to thoughts coming to the focus of our consciousness. 
Then, is assimilation requirement a good thing? Learning the local language and culture brings immense benefits to both sides in the form of improved communication and understanding. Improved communication also might widen the horizons of the locals.

Assimilation is a sweet thing, like sugar. Too much for some people may cause health (mental) problems. Since when has being like everyone else made mavericks happy? Too little and there is no sweetness in your life, probably. Of course, being the eternal other also may give someone immense kicks and thus assimilation would be a high price. 

There is a third possibility over total assimilation or zero assimilation - selective assimilation. The immigrant assimilates to a degree that helps with living fulfilling lives yet retains aspects that enriches the new surroundings.

Recipe for successful selective assimilation: 

  • Quickly learn the local language and culture 
  • Learn to appreciate and be grateful for all the good things in the host society 
  • Stop finding faults with the host society like many locals do - moaning makes you boring
  • Find a way to contribute, at least to someone other than yourself - make friends!
  • Cherish your own culture and cultivate a deeper understanding and then communicate it to the locals who are interested in widening their horizons.
  • Find something in the new culture to cheer up your daily life - have fun!
So, assimilation oui, mais non.

Post a Comment