The Great Assimilation Scare

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two of the smartest conservative thinkers today, have spilt much ink worrying over immigrant assimilation.  Salam is more pessimistic, choosing titles like “The Melting Pot is Broken” and “Republicans Need a New Approach to Immigration” (with the descriptive url: “Immigration-New-Culture-War”) while relying on a handful of academic papers for support.  Douthat presents a more nuanced, Burkean think-piece reacting to assimilation’s supposed decline, relying more on Salam for evidence. 

Their worries fly against recent evidence that immigrant assimilation is proceeding quickly in the United States.  There’s never been a greater quantity of expert and timely quantitative research that shows immigrants are still assimilating.

The first piece of research is the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) September 2015 book titled The Integration of Immigrants into American SocietyAt 520 pages, it’s a thorough, brilliant summation of the relevant academic literature on immigrant assimilation that ties the different strands of research into a coherent story.  Bottom line:  Assimilation is never perfect and always takes time, but it’s going very well. 

One portion of NAS’ book finds that much assimilation occurs through a process called ethnic attrition, which is caused by immigrant inter-marriage with natives either of the same or different ethnic groups.  Assimilation is also quickened with second or third generation Americans marry those from other, longer-settled ethnic or racial groups.  The children of these intermarriages are much less likely to identify ethnically with their more recent immigrant ancestors and, due to spousal self-selection, to be more economically and educationally integrated as well.  Ethnic attrition is one reason why the much-hyped decline of the white majority is greatly exaggerated

     In an earlier piece, Salam focuses on ethnic attrition but exaggerated the degree to which it declined by confusing stocks of ethnics in the United States with the flow of new immigrants.  He also emphasizes the decrease in immigrant inter-marriage caused by the 1990-2000 influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants.  That decrease is less dire than he reports.  According to another 2007 paper, 32 percent of U.S.-born Mexican-American men married outside of their race or ethnicity while 33 percent of women did (I write about this in more detail here).  That’s close to the 1990 rate of intermarriage reported for all Hispanics in the study Salam favored.  The “problem” disappeared.  

The second set of research is a July 2015 book entitled Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015 that analyses immigrant and second generation integration on 27 measurable indicators across the OECD and EU countries.  This report finds more problems with immigrant assimilation in Europe, especially for those from outside of the EU, but the findings for the United States are quite positive.

The third work by University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor offers a historical perspective.  He compares modern immigrant civic and cultural assimilation to that of immigrants form the early 20th century (an earlier draft of his book chapter is here, the published version is available in this collection).  For those of us who think early 20th century immigrants from Italy, Russia, Poland, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere assimilated successfully, Vigdor’s conclusion is reassuring:

“While there are reasons to think of contemporary migration from Spanish-speaking nations as distinct from earlier waves of immigration, evidence does not support the notion that this wave of migration poses a true threat to the institutions that withstood those earlier waves.  Basic indicators of assimilation, from naturalization to English ability, are if anything stronger now than they were a century ago [emphasis added].

American identity in the United States (similar to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) is not based on nationality or race nearly as much as it is in the old nation states of Europe, likely explaining some of the better assimilation and integration outcomes here.       

Besides ignoring the huge and positive new research on immigrant assimilation, there are a few other issues with Douthat’s piece.

Douthat switches back and forth between Europe and the United States when discussing assimilation, giving the impression that the challenges are similar.  Treating assimilation in Europe and the United States as similar adds confusion, not clarity.  Cherry-picking outcomes from Europe to support skepticism about assimilation in the United States misleads.  Assimilation is a vitally important outcome for immigrants and their descendants but Europe and the United States have vastly different experiences. 

Douthat also argues that immigrant cultural differences can persist just like the various regional cultures have done so in the United States.  That idea, used most memorably in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, is called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement (DFES).  Under that theory, the creation and persistence of regional cultural differences requires the near-total displacement of the local population by a foreign one, as happened in the early settlement of the United States. 

However, DFES actually gives reasons to be optimistic about immigrant assimilation because Douthat misses a few crucial details when he briefly mentioned it.  First, as Fischer and others have noted, waves of immigrants have continuously assimilated into the settled regional American cultures since the initial settlement – that is the point of DFES.  The first effective settlements set the regional cultures going forward and new immigrants assimilate into those cultures. 

Second, DFES predicts that today’s immigrants will assimilate into America’s regional cultures (unless almost all Americans quickly die and are replaced by immigrants).  The American regional cultures that immigrants are settling into are already set so they won’t be able to create persistent new regional cultures here.  America’s history with DFES is not a reason to worry about immigrant assimilation today and should supply comfort to those worried about it.

Immigrants and their children are assimilating well into American society.  We shouldn’t let assimilation issues in Europe overwhelm the vast empirical evidence that it’s proceeding as it always has in the United States.