Will Americanization Work in America?

By Mark Krikorian on September 1, 1997

Freedom Review, Fall 1997

Our country is experiencing the largest sustained wave of immigration in history, which, barring changes in legislation, will continue indefinitely. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) gave out more than 900,000 green cards last year, enabling immigrants to live permanently in the United States and eventually qualify for citizenship. In addition, the INS estimates that more that 400,000 long‑term illegal immigrants settled here last year. The total number of immigrants, about 25 million, represents close to 10 percent of our total population.

The contradiction between government policy and public anxiety about high immigration has led to a number of intellectual and political responses. Among those who favor the high immigration status quo, two responses have developed. One, more palatable to the high‑immigration Left, is to identify illegal immigration as the sole source of public discontent with immigration in general (even though illegals account for only 20 percent of all immigrants). The result was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which was shorn of the legal immigration reform provisions it had originally contained and in the end focused almost exclusively on illegal immigration.

The second approach, largely confined to the high‑immigration Right, has been to identify multiculturalism and related policies which seek to weaken America's national identity, as the source of public angst over immigration. Peter Salins, author of Assimilation, American Style, has written that "a revival of the assimilationist ethos might get a majority of ordinary Americans to smile on immigration again." In other words, the high‑immigration Right contends that there's nothing wrong with mass immigration that eliminating multiculturalism won't fix.

There are two elements to this claim which bear examining. First: Is it true? Is immigration problematic only because we have undertaken a project of national deconstruction, which mass immigration exacerbates? Or are there other problems? And second: Is the eclipse of multiculturalism (and affirmative action, and bilingualism, etc.) so imminent that it would be prudent to continue a policy of mass immigration while the polity is nursed back to health? Or, on the contrary, does continued mass immigration buttress the multicultural revolution and intensify its consequences?

While the "get rid of multiculturalism" school of immigration enthusiasts clings to a romanticized and sanitized immigration myth, extolling immigrant family values, entrepreneurship and economic advancement, there is a growing consensus among scholars that current immigration policies give rise to problems that can neither be wished away nor ameliorated by more muscular efforts at Americanization.

The most thorough discussion of these problems appeared in a report issued earlier this year by the National Research Council, part of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, prepared by many of the top economists, demographers and sociologists studying the issue, echoes the growing concern that immigration is widening the gap between rich and poor. It concludes that "domestic, higher‑skilled workers, and perhaps owners of capital" benefit from immigration, while the losers include, "the less‑skilled domestic workers who compete with immigrants and whose wages will fall." The report estimates that nearly half the relative decline in wages for native‑born high school dropouts has been caused by immigration.

In effect, the report presents a moral question: Is it acceptable to drive down the wages of the poorest Americans so that the rest of us enjoy a barely perceptible increase in wealth? And since our black countrymen are significantly more likely than others to be high school dropouts, this is a question of some political importance. The economic dislocation of the poor caused by immigration contributes to the further alienation of poor blacks (and, derivatively, all other blacks) from the institutions of our Republic. This is merely the latest stage in a process whereby immigrants have outpaced black Americans, a process which began with the first great wave of immigration before the Civil War, when Frederick Douglass observed that "every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place."

Thus, even if today's high levels of unskilled immigration were to be subjected to a vigorous Americanization campaign, black Americans would continue to be harmed disproportionately. The full incorporation of black Americans will therefore continue to be delayed (or reversed) because of immigration, even if all the immigrants themselves were to magically become indistinguishably American. And if, as Nathan Glazer suggests, the growth of multiculturalism was largely driven by black discontent, it isn't likely to be reversed by a policy which further harms the black poor.

The authors of the National Research Council report also estimated a $15 billion to $20 billion gap between government spending on immigrant households and taxes paid by immigrant households (other researchers have placed the figure even higher). This is a reversal of the net positive effect in the past. The reasons are clear: the educational level of each successive wave of immigrants since 1965 has continually declined relative to that of natives. The resulting lower income level of immigrants not only means that they pay less in taxes on average that do natives, it also means that they have a greater propensity to consume public services.

The problematic consequences of immigration are not exclusively economic. The NRC report noted that many prior studies of the labor market failed to find much harm from immigration because these studies confined their investigations to specific metropolitan areas. But we now know that the effect on wages is dispersed, "in part because competing native workers migrate out of the areas to which immigrants move," the report says. William Frey of the University of Michigan has studied the ethnic balkanization created by immigration, and concludes that over the next 25 years the projected difference in ethnic/racial composition across states will be striking and unlike anything that existed before in the country's history.

Putting aside the above‑mentioned problems, one needs to ask two questions regarding Americanization: first, would the level and makeup of the immigration flow itself undermine or complicate any renewed Americanization campaign and, second, does our society even have the self‑confidence and resolve needed to sustain such an assimilationist campaign?

Today's immigrant population of 25 million is twice the level of 1910. Although this represents a somewhat smaller percentage of the population than during prior waves of mass immigration (10 percent versus 15 percent), the proportion has doubled in less than 30 years. What's more, numbers alone matter a great deal with regard to assimilation and Americanization. Larger numbers, regardless of their share of the total population, can slow acquisition of English, for instance. This is not only for the obvious reason of less immigrant interaction with individual English‑speakers, but also because greater numbers create the critical mass needed to support businesses, schools, newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations that cater almost exclusively to immigrants, thus helping perpetuate independent immigrant subcultures.

An indication that the number of Spanish‑speakers has reached this critical mass is the success of Univision, the premier Spanish‑language television network, based in Los Angeles. Fortune magazine recently noted that the competition between the United Paramount Network and the WB network for the title of "fifth network" is beside the point - Univision is already America's fifth‑largest television network. It scored higher ratings than UPN and WB last season and actually won the prime‑time ratings race in Miami last fall and scored well in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Research by Barry Chiswick at the University of Illinois in Chicago indicates that immigrants who live in areas with fewer fellow immigrants acquire English faster and speak it more fluently than those who live in areas with a large number of their countrymen. Chiswick also found that even after controlling for a wide variety of factors, immigrants who have access to foreign language media outlets were less likely to speak English fluently than immigrants with little or no such access.

The absolute level of immigration also affects the degree of clustering, another inhibitor of assimilation. A report on Southern California's ethnic makeup from California State University at Northridge concludes that, "Because of massive immigration, the residential segregation of people of Mexican origin has increased since 1960. Also, in 1990 the segregation of Cambodians and Salvadorans was higher than that of blacks because immigration into ethnic enclaves has overwhelmed the process of assimilation." Indeed, as the level of immigration has increased, the degree of immigrant concentration has also increased; the top four immigrant states in 1994 (California, New York, Florida and Texas) had a 20 percent larger share of the nation's immigrant population than the top four states just 25 years before (which were California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois).

Not only are today's immigrants more clustered geographically, but they are also more concentrated ethnically. In one sense today's immigrant flow is more diverse than ever before, in that significant numbers of people come from all continents and races. But in a more important sense it is considerably less diverse than prior waves because a single ethnic/language group so dominates the flow. In 1996, 36 percent of legal immigrants were from Spanish‑speaking countries. Mexico was the number‑one source, sending more than three times as many people as number‑two Philippines, and Spanish‑speaking countries (Mexico, Cuba or the Dominican Republic) were the top sources of immigrants to five of the big‑six immigrant states (California, New York, Florida, Texas and Illinois).

In addition, more than 70 percent of the five million illegal aliens estimated to live in the United States are from Spanish‑speaking countries. All told, more than 50 percent of all foreign‑born people who have arrived in the United States since 1970 are Spanish speakers. This disproportion is evident in the schools, as well; in California, the top immigrant state, for instance, Spanish was the number‑one language among children with limited English, with nearly a million speakers - twenty times more than the number‑two language, Vietnamese.

The Hispanic domination of immigrant flow has no precedent in our history. While Germans accounted for 28 percent of the 1881‑1890 flow, and Italians 23 percent of the 1901‑1910 flow, such concentrations were transitory, with a wide variety of ethnic/language groups accounting for significant portions of the immigrant stream. But with today's permanent Hispanic majority among immigrants, one ethnic group can predominate in schools, neighborhoods, even metropolitan areas, one of the consequences of which is a reduced need for English to transcend a Babel of immigrant languages.

High immigration, concentrated geographically and ethnically, should also affect the marriage market by creating the conditions for a lower rate of intermarriage than would otherwise have occurred in those ethnic communities reinforced by immigration. Some evidence of this lies in recent intermarriage data, which show that Hispanic immigrants are least likely to intermarry in California, where they are most concentrated. Only six percent of foreign‑born Hispanic men between 25 and 34 in California were intermarried in 1990, while in the East South Central region of the country, with far fewer Hispanic immigrants, 64 percent of such men were intermarried, with 28 percent intermarried in the Pacific states, excluding California.

Current policies are also hindering the economic assimilation of immigrants. A recent Rand Corporation report found that the average earnings of immigrants dropped from 99 percent of native‑born workers' earnings in 1970 to 89 percent in 1990; in California, the drop was from 84 to 72 percent. Because the largest decline was for the least skilled, and because Hispanic immigrants have low levels of education, the Rand report found earnings deterioration most pronounced for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Mexican immigrant men in 1970 earned 66 percent as much as native‑born workers, but by 1990 they earned only 56 percent as much as natives. The decline for Central Americans was even more dramatic, from 79 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 1990. In other words, the largest immigrant group in the country is falling further and further behind with each passing year.

The change in the source countries of immigration also works against assimilation, as certain countries in Asia and Latin America have become the primary sources, with Europe accounting for only 16 percent of new immigrants in 1996. These developments in themselves are not as troubling as some immigration critics believe. Americans of European, Asian and Latin American descent seem willing enough to intermarry, belying fears of non‑white immigrants' inherent unassimilability, and pointing to the potential amalgamation of the immigrant stock.

But what makes the shift in the source countries problematic is that it began just as our country was embarking on a campaign to reinforce and subsidize ethnic separatism through affirmative action, bilingualism, and multiculturalism. These ideas had existed before - Horace Kallen, after all, promoted "cultural pluralism" during the last wave of immigration, and bilingual education for the children of German immigrants was widespread in the nineteenth century. But never before have attempts to deconstruct the American nation - to transform us into a collection of tribes, into the American "peoples" - been driven by the coercive authority of the national government. In the past, these divisive notions ran up against a strong sense of shared national identity, a confident Americanism which demanded more than a minimalist contract obliging citizens to drive on the right side of the road and vote every other November. Today's insecure, tentative, apologetic approach to national identity in general, and to the assimilation of immigrants in particular, has encouraged these latent tendencies toward national balkanization.

Here we arrive at the fundamental problem: aside from the other dubious effects of mass unskilled immigration, aside from the anti‑assimilationist nature of current immigration policy, does our society have what it takes to Americanize a large and continuing flow of strangers from overseas? Put differently, is it prudent for a nation which cannot agree on the meaning of its own history to welcome new citizens from outside?

These newcomers are bound to absorb some version of American‑ness, some narrative of their new nation's past and present. The question is, which version? Do today's immigrant children in the Los Angeles or New York or Miami public schools learn to revere George Washington, or Malcolm X? Do they study the history of the Puritans, or the Aztecs? Do they memorize the poetry of Longfellow, or Amiri Baraka? Do they celebrate Lincoln's Birthday, or Cinco de Mayo? To ask the question is to answer it.

"Patriotic assimilation" is how John Fonte describes the "conscious self‑identification by newcomers with our nation's heritage." In other words, beyond accepting the principles of liberal democracy, immigrants and their offspring need to embrace America's past (the bad with the good) as something "we" did, rather than something "they" - people of northwestern European ancestry - did. In his book ,i>The American Kaleidoscope, Lawrence Fuchs described Japanese‑American high school students in the 1920s speaking about "our Pilgrim forefathers." Contrast this with Donna Shalala, President Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services, who has said that "my grandparents came from Lebanon. I don't identify with the Pilgrims on a personal level."

But we need not rely on anecdote to know that this necessary is not taking place. Sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has studied students in San Diego who are children of immigrants or who immigrated themselves at a very young age. He first surveyed them in 1992, when the students were in the eighth and ninth grades; three years later the same students were surveyed again. In terms of ethnic self‑identification, the change was dramatic. Three years of high school caused these students to see themselves as significantly less American; there was a 50 percent drop in the proportion (already small) of those who considered themselves simply "American," a 30 percent drop in the proportion of those considering themselves hyphenated Americans, and a 52 percent increase in the proportion of those describing themselves exclusively by national origin. Among the American‑born students, the percentage who identified themselves solely by their parents' native country doubled, to one‑third. As Rumbaut points out, the results "point to the rapid growth of a reactive ethnic consciousness. Change over time, thus, has not been toward assimilative mainstream identities, but rather a return to and a valorization of the immigrant identity."

This "ethnicization" of the immigrants and their children also has political implications. Immigrants are going to be incorporated into our national life somehow, but they are assimilating into a different polity than previous immigrants encountered. The America of individual rights and responsibilities, where each citizen was to be judged on his own merit (at least in theory) has been replaced by Multicultural America, where the state formally categorizes an atomized and anomic populace based on ethnicity, race, sex, sexual preference, disability status, language, age, etc., etc. Adding immigrants in large numbers is not likely to reverse this trend. Thus, whatever their views on abortion or the appropriate level of taxation or the propriety of government funding for the arts, immigrants are assimilating into an ethos that exalts and perpetuates tribalism, rather than one that promotes a common national identity.

Some will argue that we should "keep immigration but get rid of multiculturalism." Regrettably, this argument is not persuasive. The multicultural, anti‑assimilationist ethos is deeply rooted, not only in legislation, but also in judicial precedent, bureaucratic regulations, corporate practice, curricula from grade school to graduate school, the print and broadcast media, churches, charitable organizations, and all other major social institutions. The policies that have given rise to today's mass immigration, on the other hand, are less deeply rooted in the polity; they will be difficult to change, to be sure, but incomparably easier than the constitutional and social revolution necessary to eliminate multiculturalism.

Acknowledging the difficulties in seeking to reverse multiculturalism, some conservatives see immigrants as ready‑made allies in the culture war over the nation's soul. In other words, rather than complicating efforts to quash multiculturalism, immigrants' family values, their work ethic, their piety, their respect for authority will help turn the tide in the long twilight struggle against the forces of national disintegration and moral decadence.

Unfortunately, there are problems with the notion that immigrants will transmit their values to the rest of society. There is growing evidence that many immigrants are failing to pass on their family values.

Princeton sociologist Alejandro Portes has labeled this phenomenon as "segmented assimilation," in which immigrant children, and the children of immigrants, are in a race against time to enter the middle class before the toxic waste of popular culture corrupts them. The children all assimilate in some sense, but they divide between two different cultures; some manage to join the middle class, but many others "Americanize" into the underclass.

The belief among some conservatives that immigrants will revitalize our decadent culture with their traditional mores is, as Michael Lind has pointed out, similar to the liberal belief that busing white school children into black schools would cause inner city children to emulate middle‑class values. In fact, the ethnic balkanization pinpointed by demographer William Frey is the immigration equivalent of the white flight caused by busing. Is the Bosniaization of our nation into regions dominated by different ethnic groups really worth the infinitesimal chance that a Cambodian doughnut‑shop owner's work ethic will rub off on his American neighbors?

The Left, of course, also sees mass immigration as part of its blueprint for America's future. John Isbister, for instance, the author of The Immigration Debate: Remaking America, the most comprehensive liberal defense of immigration, sees immigration as the means by which America will become more like the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he teaches. "The groups need to keep separate enough from each other that the cultures are retained and reinforced," he has written elsewhere, "but they interact with each other too, to create the distinctively American society." It would be safe to say that few conservatives would regard the ethnic politics of a public university on the West Coast as a model for America's future.

An immigrant flow that is consistently large, regionally and ethnically concentrated, eligible upon arrival for affirmative action, and, to top it all off, largely poor and uneducated, is an ideal constituency for the multicultural state. Of course, the assault on America's identity and values of the past three decades would have occurred regardless of immigration. But today's immigration is the pure oxygen that allows the multicultural fire to burn hot. Until the air supply is restricted, attempts at rebuilding a common civic culture will be unsuccessful.

Mark Krikorian is the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies and has written on immigration for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and Commentary.