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 matching. Research 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).