integrationor absorption or assimilationis
an old and familiar story in the United States.
So much so that one of our greatest historians,
Oscar Handlin, began his greatest book by declaring:
"Once I thought to write a history of the
immigrants in America. Then I discovered that
immigrants were American history [and that to
tell their story fully would require] setting
down the whole history of the United States."
The immigrant experience is also an intimate
story for most people in the United States.
We're almost all the children of immigrants,
and we all know something of "the melting
Yet, for all this, it is instructive to go to
Europe and compare notes with those who are
now also dealing with issues of immigration
and immigrant absorption. The metaphor that
comes to my mind is two people commiserating
outside of a clinic. Not that immigration is
necessarily a complaint, and certainly not an
illness. On the contrary, in the right number
and under the right circumstances, immigration
is a great boon to the receiving countryto
its economy and its spirit. But the influx does
sometimes come with some aches and painsif
only growing painsand plainly many countries
are facing those aches and pains today.
The good news is that assimilation is going pretty
well these days in the United States. Whether
in fact this is true is a much disputed and much
monitored questionand rightly so. After all,
with about a million legal and illegal immigrants
coming into the country every year, if they're
not assimilating, we're heading for real trouble.
But most of the evidence I see supports a degree
Obviously, the first component of absorption
is economic. It's not the be-all and end-all.
You can be doing all right economically and still
not be fully integrated. But it's certainly the
first building block. As I read the economic data,
on this score, the glass is at least half full.
Most immigrants who come to America come to work.
Most don't get welfarethey are not entitled
to it for the first five to ten years. They know
from other immigrants who have preceded them from
their regions of origin whether or not work is
available. Communications are very good now between
American cities and the little villages of Latin
America. If there aren't many jobs to be had,
few immigrants make the trip. After all, if you're
going to be unemployed, it's much better to unemployed
at home than in the United States. It's usually
a lot warmer at home and much less expensive to
live, and you're usually surrounded by a network
of supportive family and friends. So even though,
technically, three-quarters of American immigrant
visas are given out on the basis of family ties,
almost every foreigner who comes to the United
States gets a jobor two or three jobsand
works hard at it. Indeed, Hispanic malesand
Hispanics account for about half the foreign-born
in the United Stateshave the highest labor-force
participation rates of any group in the country.
Now of course it's true that many immigrants
are poor and the jobs they do are often the dirtiest
and most dangerous jobs going: jobs that native-born
Americans don't want to do, like busboy and chambermaid
and assembly-line worker in a meat-processing
plant. But these people at the bottom of the economic
ladder are only one component of the vast flow
of immigrants that has been coming to America
in recent decades. America has accepted a lot
of people at the top end of the economic ladder
such as nurses, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
About a quarter of today's newcomers have less
than nine years of schooling but another quarter
have university degreesabout the same percentage
as the native-born. When you mix this second group's
educational background with the phenomenal personal
drive that most immigrants bring, it can prove
an unbeatable combination. Just spend some time
in Silicon Valley, where foreign-born scientists
account for a third of the scientific workforce
and Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs run a quarter
of the high-tech companies.
The poverty and social backgrounds of many of
today's newcomers are, of course, a cause for
some concern. There's no question that, like many
European nations, the United States today is basically
a middle-class country importing a new lower class.
That's the point, really, or a big part of the
point: America no longer has a lower class, and
it turns out that it needs one. But that doesn't
necessarily mean these immigrants aren't going
to be absorbed by the economy or do well for themselves
by it, because generally they do. In fact, by
the time the average immigrant has been in the
United States for 10 or 15 years, he or she is
usually making more than the average native-born
Which brings us to the second component of integration:
How are the immigrants' children faring? This
is the critical question. After all, the first
generation is always transitional. They always
live between two worlds, and if they arrive as
adults, they never fully integrate. And to some
degree, in America today, it's too soon to tell
how the second generation is doing. Nevertheless,
the evidence is beginning to trickle in, and to
me it looks a lot more positive than negative.
Troubling signs do exist. Those who were born
abroador whose parents wereoften start at
the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. They certainly
go to some of the worst schools in the country
failing, overcrowded inner-city schools, where
many of the native-born students disdain learning
and scorn mainstream success. And yes, some second-generation
immigrant kids catch this bad attitude from their
But, as a group, these immigrant children come
home with a superb report card. One important
study conducted over the last decade in San Diego
and Miami found that whatever country they come
from, across the board, these students work harder
than their native- born classmates. They do an
average two hours of homework a night compared
with the "normal" 30 minutes. They aspire
to greater achievement than American-born students.
They get better grades, and they drop out far
less often - between a third and half as often.
The second generation is likely to outstrip their
parents educationally and economically, vindicating
the parents' urge to take the risk of coming to
the United States to make a better life for their
The third key component of assimilation is the
question of language. Are today's immigrants learning
to speak English? This is an issue of huge concern
in the United Statesit is probably the greatest
fear of those who worry that assimilation is not
workingand there is no question, there is undoubtedly
a lot more Spanish in the air today than there
used to be 20 or 30 years ago. There are signs
in Spanish just about everywhere you go. Politicians
in heavily immigrant cities and at the federal
level are falling all over themselves to learn
Spanish. Even corporate America is catching the
bug, spending hundreds of millions of dollars
a year on advertising in Spanish and even Mandarin
Chinese. So it would be easy to surmise that immigrants
are not learning English, particularly not Hispanic
immigrants, who often live in large enclaves of
other Spanish-speaking people, where, some argue,
you do not need English to get by.
But when you start to look at some real evidence,
it turns out that the conventional wisdom driving
people to campaign and advertise in Spanish
is quite wrong. According to the Census, about
10 percent of the US population now lives in
a household where Spanish is spoken. That sounds
like a fairly large number but it turns out
to be quite misleading, because for the Census
Bureau, even one Spanish speakerand in
many cases, it's an elderly grandparentis
enough to get a family classified as Spanish-speaking.
Yet within those households, 85 percent of the
kids and 70 percent of the working-age adults
speak English well or very well.
This has nothing to do with language classes.
America doesn't provide much in the way of language
classes. It's mainly about the power and reach
of American pop culture. About 60 percent of today's
new immigrants come to the United States speaking
English well or very wellit's hard to avoid
it in the world today, even in a poor village
in rural Mexico. Despite the travesty that is
bilingual education, virtually everyone who grows
up in America eventually learns English. According
to the second-generation study, by the end of
high school, 98 percent of today's immigrants'
children speak and understand English well or
very well, and nine out of ten prefer it to their
There are some other important ways that people
measure assimilation. Home-ownership is a good
indicator that means immigrants are putting down
roots and investing in themas are citizenship
and intermarriageand on all those measures
in America today the indications range from pretty
good to astonishing.
Let's look first at home-ownership. True, as
those who are pessimistic about assimilation are
quick to tell you, many recent immigrants are
anything but settled. They go back and forth to
the old country. They often leave their families
at home and maintain strong ties to the old world.
But after a while, they settle down. They ask
their families to join them or they marry someone
they've met in America; and within 20 years, 60
percent of them are homeowners. And by the time
they've been in the United States for 25 years,
they're actually more settled than native-born
Americansa significantly higher share of them
own their own homes.
Similarly, with citizenship. True, today, unlike
in the past, it is possible for people from many
countries to maintain dual citizenshipand with
it, perhaps, troublingly dual or conflicting loyalties.
True, naturalization is a slow, gradual process.
Among those who arrived in the years since 1990,
less than 10 percent have become citizens. But
among those who have been in the United States
since 1970as many as 80 percent of them are
naturalized. The point is clear: If you stay,
you eventually jointoday, as in the past, you
eventually graduate from sojourner to member.
Finally - saving the most stunning numbers for
last - there is the ethnic intermarriage rate.
Just to give some perspective, until very recently
the black-white intermarriage rate in the United
States was well under 5 percent but, when it comes
to US-born Asians and US-born Hispanics, between
a third and a half marry someone of a different
ethnicity and by the third generation, according
to some demographers, the rates are over 50 percent
for both groups.
Naturally, none of these measures really capture
the ineffable that is the essence of integrationthe sense of fully belonging in a new land and
a new culture. Do today's immigrants feel they
are truly Americans? Do they place their loyalty
to the things we all share as a nation above their
loyalties to their groups and their particular
ethnicities? Well, relatively few people do, even
among the native-born. And the mainstream culture
hardly encourages it. Many Americans themselves
no longer know what it means to be American. Our
schools teach at best a travesty of American history,
distorted by political correctness and the excesses
of multiculturalism and, even in the wake of September
11, few leaders have tried to evoke more than
a fuzzy, feel-good enthusiasm for America.
So there's no question that today's immigrants
are at a disadvantage compared to yesterday's
when it comes to what some people call "patriotic
assimilation." But this is as much the nation's
fault as it is the fault of immigrants. America
is full of self-styled ethnic "leaders"
and ethnic-studies professors and ethnic marketers
fomenting chauvinism and divisivenessmost of
them second- or third- or fourth-generation. But
your average, hard-working immigrant is only baffled
by identity politics. Today's migrants, like yesterday's,
want to make it in America, not live in apart
in anger and alienation. Their children may be
a different matter and we have to reach out to
their children in a different way. But given half
a chance, there's no one more patriotic than a
new immigrant. You should have seen the flags
flying in the Mexican-American neighborhoods in
the wake of 9/11. According to one of the largest
and most comprehensive national surveys of Latinos,
conducted by the Washington Post, 84 percent believe
it is "important" or "very important"
for immigrants "to change so that they blend
into the larger society, as in the idea of the
So a picture is beginning to emerge here. It's
a mixed picture and, to a significant extent,
the jury is still out. But whatever question marks
remain, today's new American immigrants are not
spawning a new "rainbow underclass."
Today's immigrants are not tomorrow's blacks.
There are a lot of reasons for this but by and
large, the immigrant integration story that's
developing in America today is a success story.
If you have any doubts, just spend some time among
the Mexican-American middle class in a place like
Houston, Texas, or with the first-generation Chinese-Americans
- and there are quite a few of them - who sit
on the board of overseers that runs the California
state university system.
So the question is what can be done, whether
in Europe or in America, to encourage and assist
immigrant integration. But before I get to that,
I want to consider the parallelor, more precisely,
what is parallel and what isn'tbetween America
and Europe. Certainly, Americans have been dealing
with this for a lot longer. This does not mean
that we are necessarily better at it: People tackling
an issue for the first time often bring a combination
of energy and ideas that's missing among people
who have been grappling with a problem forever.
But certainly, there are some factors that make
this issue a little easier in America.
It helps that there really is no such thing as
a hereditary American in the way that there are
in effect hereditary Frenchmen and hereditary
Germans. America has always been a place where
foreigners could show up and participatemaybe
not on an equal basis, but still participate
and in most cases, they eventually found they
were accepted as full members.
It also helps that we don't haveand never
have had - an established state religion. So neither
your religion nor your ethnicity is an a priori
obstacle to integration. Comparing the current
situations in Europe and the United States, Americans
are fortunate that the group that happens to be
coming in the largest number, Latin Americans,
have a long tradition of cultural and biological
mixingwhat they call mestizaje. The quintessential
feature of the culture they come from is the way
it blends Spanish and Indian and, in some cases,
African elements. So they mix easily and comfortably,
and in this, they're very different from Muslims,
who come from a very different tradition and often
have a different attitude toward assimilation.
Finally, unlike in Europe, crime is not a particular
problem among American immigrants, and even in
these relatively sour economic times, the unemployment
rate in the United States is nothing like unemployment
rates in Europe.
So there are a lot of ways in which I think we
have it easier. And it's quite possible that the
differences between the two continents make the
American experience completely irrelevant in Europe.
Immigration policy ought to be based on work
The primary criterion for whom to let in ought
to be who is coming to do a job that needs doing
and that native-born people don't tend to want
to do. Sure, humanitarian concerns have an effect
on policy. Family reunification has a place and
so, of course, does helping refugees. But the
main reason people move from one country to another
is to improve their lot, usually economically,
and the only real, enduring interest a foreign
country has in accepting them is if they're going
to contribute. So let's recognize this and make
it the basis of policy.
Besides, the more of a premium a country can
place on economic migrantsthe more clearly
it acknowledges those who are economic migrants
and the more access it gives them to its labor
marketsthe better immigrant integration will
work. People who work establish roots and relationships.
People who work learn the language. People who
work eventually better themselves. And people
who work earn the respect of their fellow countrymen.
Now, as I say, this is a point I spend a lot of
time trying to press home, where our essentially
family-driven system gets us in trouble because
of the way it's out of sync with our labor needs.
But if anything, the principle seems even more
relevant in America than in Europe. Why not recognize
that whatever the political circumstances in countries
like Turkey and Afghanistan, many of the migrants
from those places are coming to Europe to work
and make a better life for themselves? Recognize
this, let them workand reap the rewards, as
working helps them to assimilate.
Too much government assistance is a mistake
Refugees who for one reason or another can't
work may need some help from the government, but
this isn't true for most economic migrantsand
for them, assistance can be as much a curse as
a blessing. All too often, welfare discourages
work and the assimilation that inevitably comes
with it. In the case of government housing, whether
in accommodation centers or elsewhere, the supposedly
helping hand of the state encourages segregation.
Too warm a welcome creates a false incentive for
other would-be migrants, luring more people into
the country than can productively work and integrate
there. And it only leads the native-born to look
down on the migrants who receive it, further adding
to the difficulty of assimilating.
Of course, all of this begs the question: How
much is too much? And I'm not against providing
some basic serviceswhether emergency services
or other necessities, as well as any services
that spur assimilation. (I'm all for better public
schools, for example, and vocational apprenticeships
and classes that help people learn to help themselvesteaching them financial literacy and that sort
of thing. In some cases, I'm even at the generous
end of the spectrum on services. I'm all for allowing
even illegal immigrants' children to go to public
universities, for examplea big issue in the
United States right now.) But I don't think the
United States made a mistake in barring immigrants
from receiving welfare, and to the degree that's
possible in Europe, I urge European policymakers
to consider it.
Short-sighted, unrealistic laws that force
otherwise legitimate migrants to live underground
are only going to slow their absorption
This is only common sense. The law-abiding are
more likely to fit into society and be accepted
there than people who live outside the law and
adopt the habits of law-breakers.
The problem in the United States is that although
a million immigrants come into the country each
year to work, the law only recognizes two-thirds
that numberand the other third are forced to
sneak in and then to live like fugitives. Not
only does this criminalize badly needed productive
activity, it also makes an ass of the law - and
creates all kinds of obstacles to assimilation.
And I'm sure this must be true in Europe, too,
where so many who want to work are forced to work
illegally, and even those seeking asylum often
start their new lives as outlaws. If they are
going to come anyway, far better to recognize
reality and create legitimate channels.
It is not a mistake to make demands of immigrants
Demands that they learn the language in their
new, adopted country; demands that they learn
the manners and mores; demands that they eventually
become citizens. This is not racist or unduly
nationalistic, although this sort of incorporation
effort should be as positive as possiblea matter
not of sanctions and punishment but of highlighting
the allure of the new country. You ask and encourage
people to learn the ways of a culture because
those ways are the keys to success there. If you're
going to require, say, learning the language,
you ought to provide and pay for classes. (The
government does not need to provide them, but
it ought to create incentives so that others do.)
This will only work to the degree that newcomers
are also allowed to maintain some degree of attachment
to the culture they come from.
Don't ask people to obliterate their old loyalties
America does not ask immigrants to forget about
their ethnicity. On the contrary, anyone who knows
what makes America great knows that Italian-Americans
will be Italian, Jewish Americans will be Jewish
- and in the 21st century, Latino Americans will
be Latino. What we ask, or have asked in the past,
is that people learn to balance the two sides
of their identitythe ethnic side and the American
side. Traditionally, what this meant for most
groups was that at home and on the weekends and
in your neighborhoodi.e., in privateyou lived
your ethnic background, or were free to. But when
it came to the workday or the workplace or anything
public or official, you were a citizen among citizens
and you could be accepted as a full member there
in the public sphere, no matter what you did or
were at home.
It's true that this traditional balance is out
of kilter in the United States today: Our obsessive
and insistent multiculturalism has disrupted the
age-old balance. We may not be requiring enough
of our new immigrants todayor holding out enough
in the way of a coherent idea of what it means
to be American and this is a crucial challenge
for the United States going forward.
But immigrant absorption cannot work without
this balance, because you can not expect people
to simply give up who they are - to throw away
the habits they have grown up with and the age-old
loyalties that help to make them strong. But you
also can't hope to assimilate them unless you
permit and encourage full membership. So you have
to come up with a notion of membership that allows
for some kind of hyphenated existence that isn't
second-class. At least that's the formula in America.
So the great question, of course, is whether
any of this can work in Europe. I don't think
there's any doubt that it is what has made America
what it is today. From Anglo-Saxon political traditions
to Jewish humor, from the German work ethic to
Irish eloquence: Just about everything that makes
America great was brought here by an immigrant.
But Europe is a very different place, with little
or no tradition of immigrant absorption and where
people are already anxious that for one reason
or anotherglobalization, modernizationthe
traditional fabric and character of the society
is being eroded. It is easy to understand those
concerns and to see why immigration poses a harder
challenge in Europe.
In the long run, however, it's a challenge
that cannot be avoided. For demographic reasons,
because of changing labor needs, thanks to globalization
and the ever-accelerating interconnectedness
of the world today: Immigration is Europe's
future whether she likes it or not. Better to
recognize it, regularize it, bring it above
groundand get on with the hard business
of helping the newcomers assimilate.
Presented in Madrid, Spain in June 2002