Assimilation, Attachment, and Economic Opportunity

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on April 19, 2012

Two recent stories in the New York Times underline, if only inadvertently, the importance of a robust economy to the continuing assimilation of legal immigrants.

The first is titled, "Many U.S. Immigrants' Children Seek American Dream Abroad". It is a reminder that emotional attachment to the American national community is the real final accomplishment of assimilation, when it happens. And that is a precious, not-to-be-taken-for-granted outcome that is the foundation of American support for legal immigration.

And, it is also a reminder of the importance of the climate of opportunity that helps bring and bind immigrants to the American national community.

The basic thrust of the story is that, "In growing numbers, experts say, highly educated children of immigrants to the United States are uprooting themselves and moving to their ancestral countries. They are embracing homelands that their parents once spurned but that are now economic powers."

How many, exactly, are involved in the "growing numbers" that the Times characterizes as a "new wave"? The Times doesn't say aside from noting that the "phenomenon was significant and increasing". So we're unclear whether it's discussing a tidal wave or a shore break.

Even so the reasons for the out-migration are made clear: the economy. One young person moved,

from an internship on Capitol Hill to jobs at a major foundation and a consulting firm.

Yet his days, he felt, had become routine. By contrast, friends and relatives in India, his native country, were telling him about their lives in that newly surging nation. One was creating an e-commerce business, another a public relations company, still others a magazine, a business incubator and a gossip and events Web site.


Last year, he quit his job and moved to Mumbai.

Another, a Brazilian-American born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in South Florida, returned to Brazil last year.

He was a,

Harvard Business School graduate, he had been working at an Internet company in Silicon Valley and unsuccessfully trying to develop a business. "I spent five months spending my weekends at Starbucks, trying to figure out a start-up in America," he recalled.

All the while, Harvard friends urged him to make a change. "They were saying: 'Jon, what are you doing? Go to Brazil and start a business there!'" he said.

Relocating to Sao Paulo, he became an "entrepreneur in residence" at a venture capital firm. He is starting an online eyewear business. "I speak the language, I get the culture, I understand how people do business," he said.

The article summarizes itself as follows: "[M]ost said they had been pushed by the dismal hiring climate in the United States or pulled by prospects abroad." Or, we might add, both.

And this brings into sharper focus a hidden assumption of American immigration. Economic opportunity not only brings immigrants here, but also keeps them here once they arrive.

It is easy to think of this primarily as financial matter, but it is more than that. Work, especially for those immigrants who come here at a young age or who are the children of immigrants, is not only a matter of money but of identity. Part of the cultural foundation of American life is that identities are yours to choose and develop. It is an under-heralded aspect of an American identity and has implications for assimilation and attachment.

The country that provides that opportunity is the object of our appreciation when we think about it, which is not often. But a time of economic downturn, that fact emerges in sharper focus.

So when the American economy is stalled in a prolonged downturn, in part because of government policies, it keeps young immigrants and Americans alike from consolidating their identities, which of necessity in more successful times is an American-based identity.

Next: Reform Our Visa System for Entrepreneurs or Reform the Economy?