Government Immigrant Assimilation Programs Can Backfire: The Case of German Americans

The assimilation of immigrants and their descendants is important to their long-run success and to maximize the benefits from immigration.  Current research indicates that today’s immigrants are assimilating well.  A massive 520-page literature survey by the National Academy of Sciences found that assimilation is proceeding apace in the United States although some of those gains are masked by a phenomenon called “ethnic attrition” whereby the most successful and integrated descendants of immigrants cease to self-identify as members of their ancestor’s ethnic groups.  Numerous OECD reports find greater economic integration of immigrants and their descendants in the United States relative to other developed countries, even when it comes to job matchingResearch by University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor shows that modern immigrant civic and cultural assimilation is similar to that of immigrants from the early 20th century, to the extent that “[b]asic indicators of assimilation, from naturalization to English ability, are if anything stronger now than they were a century ago.”

However, John Fonte of the Hudson Institute argues that today’s immigrants are not assimilating well because our “patriotic assimilation system is broken.”  In a shorter piece explaining his reasoning, Fonte argues that the “assimilation of the Ellis Island generation succeeded only because American elites (progressive at the time) insisted upon ‘Americanization.’”  Elites at the time showed their support for Americanization through many government programs and non-profit assimilation efforts supported by states. 

Fonte and I disagreed about this (and other topics) on a panel in 2014 at Hudson.  I argued that there is no evidence from over 100 years ago that the Americanization Movement, a government program combined with support from non-profits to assimilate immigrants, actually encouraged or sped up the assimilation of the immigrants who were affected by it.  Fonte countered by saying [2:44:15]: “It’s true we don’t have data on how well assimilation worked, but I think we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that Americanization did help.”  Later, I wrote about several contrary anecdotes where new immigrants offended and discouraged by the government’s efforts to forcibly assimilate them to a particular nationalistic definition of what it meant to be an American.

A revealing anecdote printed in a Polish-language newspaper that appealed to American traditions when it wrote that the Americanization Movement “smacks decidedly of Prussianism, and it is not at all in accordance with American ideals of freedom” (256).  A Russian-language newspaper made the more devastating claim that the Americanization Movement did not actually do much except insult immigrants:

Many Americanization Committees only exist on paper.  They make much noise, get themselves in newspapers, but do not do much good.  They mostly laugh at the poor foreigners.  If Americans want to help the immigrants, they must meet them with love.  The immigrant is by no means stupid.  He feels the patronizing attitude the American [Americanizers] adopts towards him, and therefore never opens his soul (258). 

At this point, Fonte and I had dueling anecdotes and it is not at all obvious whether these programs had an effect on assimilation regardless of the direction.  Since the 2014 Hudson event, a new empirical working paper called “Backlash: The Unintended Effects of Language Prohibition in US Schools after World War I” by Vasiliki Fouka found that anti-German language laws in the United States actually slowed down the assimilation of German Americans on several margins, lending support to my anecdotal evidence. 

The anti-German language laws have a nasty history.  Around World War I, many state governments passed anti-German laws that outlawed school instruction in the German language – even in private schools.  Beyond that, the government undertook an intense campaign to assimilate German Americans out of fear that they were a potential fifth column that would undermine the war effort.  Fouka’s paper employed expert research design methods to look at how these anti-German language laws in Ohio and Indiana affected the assimilation of German American children who were subject to them. 

The good news is that German Americans who were already well assimilated were not affected by the anti-German laws so at least they did not unassimilate them.  The bad news is that German Americans who were the least assimilated actually integrated at a much slower rate after these anti-German language laws went into effect.  As they aged, they dropped out of school at younger ages, picked German names for their children, tended to marry other Germans rather than Americans of different European ethnic backgrounds, and were less likely to volunteer for military service during World War II.

Fouka’s assimilation model has two main components: peer effects and family effects.  Peer effects are assimilation pressures from the broader society that includes schooling.  The supporters of the anti-German laws proceeded under the theory that cutting German out of schools would reduce their exposure to that language, culture, and help assimilation by boosted exposure to the English language.  Those advocates forgot that there were also family effects whereby German-American families substituted more emphasis on preserving German culture inside of the home to make up for the lack of German language and cultural instruction outside of the home.  The net result was that German-American families vastly increased their production of German culture and language relative to the decline of German language and culture in school.  This backlash overwhelmed any potential pro-assimilation effects of the anti-German policies and actually worsened the rate of assimilation.   

Most of the policies of the Progressive Era have had devastating effects on the United States but we are just now beginning to understand how their insistence of assimilation through government schools and other programs slowed integration.  The failure of government assimilation programs through public education is not confined to the United States.  Even the totalitarian Chinese Communist education system could not make ethnic minorities in China feel more “Chinese.”  What hope is there for a comparable American assimilation program to succeed today where the Chinese Communists could not?      

People do not assimilate or learn to love the United States because an American schoolteacher told them to.  Students barely even remember any lessons from school unless they use them frequently on the job, especially civics.  Immigrants and their descendants assimilate and become American because it is in their best interests to do so and they cannot help it.  Learning English, adopting most of our social norms, and understanding our culture spontaneously happens over time through exposure and because doing so increases their income.  Immigrants become patriotic (they really do) and love the United States because it is a lovable country – two things a government program cannot and should not teach.