A Small Hyphen's Large Assimilation Results

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on January 17, 2011

To understand the role of the hyphen in helping legal immigrants become Americans it is important to keep in mind its role in managing the emotional currents of the immigration process.

Immigration begins with the decision to give up a great deal to make a fresh start in a new country. For most immigrants this requires adjusting to a new culture, a new language, unknown economic prospects, and a lonely existence apart from family, friends, and community.

The emotional and life circumstances that give rise to this choice must be the result of very powerful incentives. Yet, however dire those circumstances, no one undertakes to leave their home and everything they have known to start a new life with uncertain prospects, without feelings of anxiety and loss.

The anxiety seems easy enough to understand and revolves around the uncertainties connected with the move. The decision to emigrate creates a substantial amount of separation anxiety. We usually think of this as the province of children and adolescents, but a move away from all that is familiar is very likely to trigger these feelings.

In such circumstances, it is easy to understand how the familiar may be both sought after and comforting. Ethnic enclaves, where they can be tapped by new immigrants, provide an element of familiarity and a measure of comfort.

Yet, there is a less remarked upon anxiety that accompanies most new legal immigrants and that is the domain of acceptance. There is too little knowledge of this domain to say with any certainty whether there is general level of acceptance anxiety among new immigrants. However, it stands to reason that those who have made the decision to give up their community of origin will wonder if they will be accepted and whether they will ever really fit in.

A new legal immigrant could be forgiven if he or she gains the impression that their success and well-being is a matter of some indifference in the their new adapted homeland. Although there are increasing numbers of community, civic and religious programs to help them, laissez faire is still the rule of American new immigrant policy.

New legal immigrants could also be forgiven of they were apprehensive about how Americans view them. This is not the fault of Americans, who overwhelming support legal immigration. It is the fault and the conscious policy of those who take advantage of every disagreement about immigration policy to make accusations that those who disagree with them are anti-immigrant. They also have not been shy about asserting that public dismay about illegal immigration is part of a broader "anti-immigrant" sentiment that covers legal immigrants as well. Immigrants, by definition, are new the country, have little understanding of the currents of American immigration, and are likely to hear commentary on their home-language radio or television shows that reinforces their fears.

Correcting and admonishing those who insist on such smears is important not only to keep such behavior from being cost-free, but to send a strong signal that disagreements about immigration policies are not a reflection on Americans' overwhelming support for legal immigration and immigrants.

Yet, even if unfounded accusations were to magically disappear, new legal immigrants would still have to wrestle with the question of how to understand their new identity, and their old one.

And it is here that the small, unassuming hyphen begins to prove its value.

Next: The Hyphen as an Identity Bridge