The Myth of Political Cost-Free Immigration, Pt. 2

By Stanley Renshon on July 9, 2014

America has always placed a large bet on immigration. It is clear that immigrants migrate to the United States for freedom and opportunity and in doing so they pursue their self-interest.

The bet we have placed, largely successfully in the past, is that we could leverage that self-interest into genuine attachment over time. That meant that they would not only work to improve their educational and economic circumstances, but would develop a real emotional attachment and identification with the their new home. In short, the bet was that immigrants would become, over time, Americans.

America's experience with its past great waves of immigration was that the thoroughly normal and expected emotional ties that new immigrants had to their former homelands would fade. It was hoped, and expected, that the new large wave of immigrants that began to build in the 1970s would, when asked years later to designate their nationality on the census, respond as many Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles, and others from the first great waves of immigration did, as simply being American.

There are of course many differences between now and then. Then, our leaders responded to the great wave of new immigrants with programs of "Americanization" backed by public consensus that this was both fitting and proper. Today, Americans have been forced to think through and distinguish between support for diversity, with its attendant implication that every ethnic culture ought to be kept intact, and assimilation, with its attendant implications that what unites this diverse nation is a common cultural core cemented with emotional attachment.

That goal has been made more difficult by the determined effort of some groups and political leaders to elevate diversity as an equally or more important goal than integration. In their view, racial and ethnic attachment trump efforts to find and develop the common ground of being an American.

One result of this split is that although a majority of Americans feel that new immigrants should learn English, adhere to the cultural foundations of the country (essentially the Protestant ethic without the religion), and take pride in being part of this country — another form in which emotional attachment manifests itself — there is a significant undertow of dissent to these basic ideas. The dissent is not found in fringe groups or their leaders, but on the contrary, in so-called mainstream civic, political, and advocacy groups and leaders at the highest levels of government.

The view that immigrant integration (assimilation) is an important element of national cohesion and identity, especially for a country that is taking in tens of millions of new legal immigrants every decade, is now, as they say "contested". It is no longer uniformly held and is under determined attack by those who see it as an insidious plot to strip individuals of their supposedly core racial and ethnic identities.

How do the tens of millions of new legal immigrants really feel about America? How much do they identify with it? How much do they see their fate and the fate of this country as interwoven?

Honestly, we don't know. Why? In part because we do not ask the question, much less try to find an answer to it.

One thing is certain, this critically important question won't be answered by asking how many new immigrants have bought a house.

Next: The Myth of Political Cost-Free Immigration, Pt. 3