Commentary

Americanizing the New Americans

By Stephen Moore
August 5, 1999
America seems to be suffering from an identity crisis of late. Almost with every passing day, America is splintering into disparate factions divided by ethnicity, race, language and income. There was more than a little irony to Al Gore’s famous slip a few years ago when he said that E Pluribus Unum means “Out of one, many,” and not “Out of many, one.”

Has the traditional concept of Americanization been sacrificed to multicultural fervor? As John Miller of National Review points out in his insightful book The Unmaking of Americans, our modern institutions in America and many of our intellectual elites often put more emphasis on “E Pluribus” than on the “Unum.” Through such programs as bilingual education, racial and ethnic quotas, and multiculturalism, we seem to mistakenly celebrate our separateness more than the ties that bind us together as a nation. Such policies emphasize group entitlement not individual achievement.

As set forth by the Founding Fathers, our common bond as Americans is not our ethnicity but our shared values: our respect for freedom, and the self-evident right of every citizen to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

For people who share those values, no matter from which corner of the globe they come, America thankfully still hangs a welcome sign on the Statue of Liberty. The foreign born sometimes make the best American citizens and patriots precisely because they are here not by birthright but by choice — a conscious decision to uproot themselves from their homeland and seek out a land of unrivaled freedom and opportunity. Even in this cynical day and age, it is not uncommon for the world’s “tempest tossed” to kiss the ground when they arrive here. Anyone who has attended a citizenship ceremony can attest to the tears of joy these events give rise to among the new Americans.

With America now admitting just under 800,000 immigrants every year, it is natural and sensible to wonder whether these newcomers are Americanizing as they should. Is this number too many immigrants for the nation — and especially highly impacted states like California — to digest all at once? The emergence of burgeoning ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles, for example, seems to indicate that we are not just importing people but transplanting whole cities of foreigners to the United States.

Fortunately, these fears are mostly unfounded. A new study from the National Immigration Forum by scholar Gregory Rodriguez of the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy indicates that the assimilation process has not broken down. Rodriguez cuts through the emotion of the issue and presents some compelling facts to document this surprising conclusion. Today’s immigrants have high rates of home ownership; they are becoming citizens in record numbers; and perhaps the ultimate sign of cultural assimilation is that they are marrying outside their own ethnic group at very high rates.

Within 10 years almost 60 percent of immigrants speak English well or very well. More importantly, some 90 percent of the children of immigrants speak English. It is virtually impossible for immigrants to preserve the dominance of their native language for more than one generation — with the exception of Spanish, which has become a durable second language. My own research finds similar patterns with respect to what we might call the “economic assimilation” of immigrants and refugees. Within 10 to 15 years in the United States, immigrants typically “catch up” to the earnings levels of American-born workers and then often surpass them. Immigrants also have a high propensity to start new businesses here.

Certainly the assimilation process doesn’t always run smoothly. But despite the romantic vision of our past, the truth is that assimilation never has. In Chicago, where I grew up, there were whole neighborhoods where the predominant language was Polish, Italian, or Spanish. In some cities in Wisconsin at the turn of the century, German was the de facto official language. Successfully assimilating newcomers has been the eternal struggle of this nation. Somehow, remarkably, we have muddled through — yesterday and today.

This, in fact is what makes the United States unique from all other nations. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s message one Fourth of July a decade and a half ago: You can go to France and never become a Frenchman. You can move to Germany, but never become a German. America is the only nation you can come to and actually become an American.

Yet, we increasingly hear pleas that immigrants should preserve and even promote their ethnic and linguistic heritage and resist the cultural hegemony of Americanization. Those on the left who advise that immigrants shouldn’t assimilate, are just as misguided as those on the right who say that immigrants won’t assimilate. The evidence suggests that our newest Americans themselves understand full well that the process of assimilation is beneficial not just to them but to the social fabric of the nation as well.

The Melting Pot is still working.

Are you listening, Pat Buchanan?

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.