Immigration is a contentious issue because it perturbs many people's self-image and sense of acceptance. "Do I belong here? Am I as American as you?" Few say it like that, yet those are the unspoken undercurrents fueling the fear and anger over the issue. Yet immigration also raises legitimate concerns about the allocation of limited social services (education, health care), taxes, unemployment, wage depression, crime, and the environment. How to address those issues without sounding like a racist hiding behind those issues?
Some politicians and pundits hide behind the mantra: "Legal immigration yes, illegal immigration no," a neat way of both supporting and opposing immigration, while avoiding the real question: "What should be legal?" How many do we admit, how quickly, using what standards, what consequences for those here illegally and what of their children? If legality were the real issue, we could solve the problem overnight by legalizing everyone.
I'm going to avoid those questions too, because I have no easy answers. (At least I am blatant about it.) Instead, I propose we focus on a proven solution to all our past immigration problems: Assimilation.
To say America is a nation of immigrants is like saying the sky is blue. It's both true and irrelevant. Every nation is a nation of immigrants; people have been migrating across the globe ever since we left Africa. Nor did the thirteen largely English colonies mean to establish a nation of immigrants. Many did not welcome America's first large Catholic influx in the 1840s, and Emma Lazarus's poem ("Give me your tired...") did not grace Lady Liberty until 1903.
More importantly, to say we are a nation of immigrants is an incomplete truth. A fuller truth is that we are a nation of immigrants who assimilated--who learned English, did not rely (through most of our history) on government safety nets, and sought to "become Americans" (a once-popular phrase).
Assimilation is not homogeneity. Marines and hippies, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Morrison, are equally American. Assimilation is not conformity to Norman Rockwell, but an erosion of tribal empathy for one's ethnicity and former homeland as one feels increasing attachment for the host culture and its people. Assimilation is the reciprocal price the immigrant pays for the benefit of acceptance. (Reciprocal, because contrary to the stereotype of discrimination always being a white or American thing, immigrants from all nations import their own share of prejudices.) Assimilation is thus the opposite of both rightist nativism and leftist identity politics; the former rejects the newcomer, the latter rejects the host.
America's strength has never been its diversity, but its ability to overcome diversity through assimilation. "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One) refers to the thirteen colonies, but could as easily describe our melting pot.
It is no insult to other cultures to say that America has its own. We say we are a multicultural nation because we worry it may offend to say otherwise, but also because it appears true from our surface diversity (skin color, food, clothes music). Yet American diversity is a mile wide and an inch deep. Beneath the surface most Americans share a sense of nationhood and fundamental values (even if Reds and Blues accuse each other of betraying those values). That sounds vague because, like obscenity, American culture is easy to recognize but difficult to define. Yet its truth becomes apparent to any American traveling abroad, many of whom say they've never felt so American as when visiting their ancestral homelands.
Surface diversity is enriching, but deep diversity can be dangerously divisive. Despite their more homogeneous surfaces, diversity runs so deep in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Mideast, and the tellingly "former" Yugoslavia that people have murdered one another to assure the dominance of their religious or ethnic group.
America too has suffered deep diversity, Jim Crow being only one recent example. Yet like the Borg, American culture continues to assimilate everything so it belongs to everyone. Chinese take-out and Italian pizza are not evidence of our multiculturalism, but things we've all come to know and share in. We speak a common language, we increasingly vote and marry outside our ethnicities, and we have at least a passing familiarity with most elements in our common culture. For example, I've only seen a handful of Star Trek episodes beyond the original series, and none featuring the Borg. Yet American culture is so pervasive, I know enough of the Borg to use them in an analogy.
Another reason Americans confuse themselves for a multicultural nation is that identity politics conflate race and culture. Shown a multiethnic group photo, many will thoughtlessly exclaim, "Oh, how multicultural!" But unless culture is genetically transmitted, an ethnically Chinese girl raised in Germany is culturally German, just as an Italian boy raised in China is culturally Chinese. Likewise, families raised in America are culturally American. Yet by confusing race and culture, Americans are dissuaded from promoting their own culture lest they appear exclusionary by celebrating something they've been convinced immigrants are genetically incapable of sharing in. (No one puts it like that, but those are the implied undercurrents of identity politics.)
This false notion of immutable identity fuels much mutual antagonism. Identity politics leftists encourage immigrants to be fearful and defensive over expressions of an American culture they portray as inherently hostile. Closed-borders rightists aggravate those fears, even as they themselves fear a hostile influx bringing poverty and revanchist fantasies. Assimilation disempowers both sides, depriving the left of a constituency, and the right of a problem. It does so by making immigrants more economically productive, while instilling in them a sense of national belonging that fosters cooperation and respect for American laws and customs. Thus does assimilation alleviate immigration's economic and social problems.
America owes nothing but offers much to those wishing entry, and makes no onerous requests; far less is required to assimilate into the U.S. than into most any other nation. Learning English is the big first step leading to all others, and most immigrants already wish to take it. Programs discouraging English (multilingual schooling, ballots, and documents) should be substituted for efforts to teach English. People concerned with immigration might consider voluntarist ways to assist the assimilation process. (Ironically, it may help to know a foreign language; I've begun studying Spanish.)
Between the extremes of identity politics and nativism lies the moderate assimilationist center. It's rooted in the American experience and it works.
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