Spring 1999, Volume XIV Number 2
Immigration: A Dialogue on Policy, Law, and Values

Immigration and American Values

EDITORS (Hannah Leiterman and John Paul Ryan): We often hear that America is becoming an increasingly "balkanized" society, where the ethnic allegiances of our [recent] immigrants have replaced America's common heritage, values, and way of life. How would you respond?

DAVID REIMERS (New York University/History): I do not believe that there is any hard evidence that immigrants coming today are more balkanized than those of 100 years ago. The process of becoming American took a long time for the immigrants of 1900. Many of today's immigrants already speak English and have some knowledge beforehand about the U.S.: as students, visitors, and through American influence abroad. We do not know how quickly those of 1900 learned English, etc.; moving into the mainstream of American society takes several generations. For example, the first generation of immigrants in the past rarely married outside the ethnic community. It is important to remember that turn of the century immigrants frequently returned home (and the rate of return has probably not changed much); many simply came to make money and return. Some scholars believe that the recent immigrants are actually less balkanized.

SUSAN MARTIN (Georgetown University/Institute for the Study of International Migration): I agree that there is no evidence that today's immigrants are more balkanized than those coming in previous generations. For example, the same concerns about the unwillingness of immigrants to learn English were uttered about the German immigrants in both the 18th and 19th centuries. Benjamin Franklin complained that the Germans in colonial Pennsylvania would never become English (of course, they didn't, they became Americans). During the 19th century, several states permitted mono-lingual public schools in which German was the language of instruction.

MARK KRIKORIAN (Center for Immigration Studies): It is correct that immigrants themselves probably aren't all that different today from those of 100 or 200 or 300 years ago. Having spent my entire life among immigrants, I understand well that they want to have their cake and eat it too, by maintaining their ancestral culture while also making a secure place for themselves in their new home. Immigrants in the past have ultimately failed in this balancing act, their descendants being not only assimilated culturally but eventually amalgamated biologically through intermarriage.

Much the same thing is indeed happening today. Due to the pervasive, though often pernicious, influence of mass media, immigrants are learning English faster than in the past (though not all groups are learning at the same rate or at the same level). Likewise, intermarriage is proceeding quite rapidly -- people of Asian and Latin American ancestry are marrying those of European ancestry at high rates, though the historical split between black and non-black remains.

KITTY CALAVITA (University of California, Irvine/Law & Society): The concept of balkanization implicitly places responsibility for ethnic segregation on immigrant groups for choosing to retain their ethnic identity and congregate in ethnic enclaves. Yet, we need to question to what extent segregation and other aspects of the so-called balkanization are the outcome of the economic and social structure of the U.S. rather than immigrant behavior or choices. The importance of such a reframing of the issue is highlighted by the fact that the most "balkanized" group in American society is African-Americans. So, perhaps the recent media attention and public discussion of "balkanization" will allow us to re-focus our attention on the ways in which social and economic structure facilitate or inhibit the formation of community among diverse ethnic groups.

PETER SCHUCK (Yale Law School): David Reimers' point about the historical pattern, in which assimilation was a multi-generational project, is especially important. While I believe that the challenge of assimilataion today is the same in its essential features as in the past -- English fluency is the key -- there are some distinctive challenges that should not be overlooked, including the likely greater difficulty today of immigrant parents transmitting their immigrant values to their children in an environment dominated by mass media and an often dangerous, downwardly mobile peer culture, as the "segmented assimilation" scholars have demonstrated. Immigrants' incentives to assimilate are so powerful, and the attractions of English are so great, that they are likely to dwarf any balkanizing tendencies.

KAREN MUSALO (Hastings College of Law/Center for Human Rights and International Justice): The U.S. is a country of immigrants, and one of its strengths is the richness that comes from the contributions of diverse cultures. The term "balkanization" carries negative connotations; it presumes that there is something harmful to our society in the fact that immigrants might bring and hang onto their culture and values. I don't agree with the underlying premise implied by the use of the term "balkanization" -- i.e., that the infusion of diverse cultures and values is harmful to the nation.

Notwithstanding my disagreement with the beginning premise, there simply isn't much evidence to support the perception that immigrants today are any different from immigrants of earlier time periods who "assimilated" over the course of one or two generations. All one has to do is watch the children of immigrants as they are growing up in our society (I have represented many refugee clients, and have come to know their children well). To the consternation of the parents, the kids want and embrace everything that looks, tastes, and sounds "American." I do not see the so-called "ethnic allegiances" being passed down generationally.

CHRISTINA DECONCINI (ABA Immigration Pro Bono Project): The question of a "balkanized" society replacing our "common heritage, values, and way of life" implies an immigrant community that does not want to assimilate or "fit in," but instead is eager to isolate itself from American culture and values. There is ample evidence that newcomers today continue to want to become full participating members of American society. Immigrants want to learn English. There are reports from across the country indicating that there is an unprecedented demand for classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), a demand which greatly exceeds the supply. The parents and grandparents of immigrant children have expressed concerns that their children are assimilating too quickly -- rapidly adopting modern ways, such as not respecting their elders or watching too much television. Immigrants are often distressed that their children refuse to speak their native language and insist on speaking only English, as they eagerly try to assimilate into American society. Immigrants are eager to join our communities and pledge allegiance to our country. In 1996, 1.1 million immigrants were sworn in as citizens of the United States, an increase of more than 700% since 1990.

Immigrants by definition are a self-selected group of individuals highly motivated to better their lives, whether for economic or political reasons. Their ingenuity, work ethic, and ability to adapt to a new land are characteristics they share with the many immigrants who preceded them. The person who walks here from Central America, fleeing persecution , risking encounters with bandits and rapists on her journey; the person who is a stowaway in a ship, fleeing China’s one-child-only policy; or the Mexican coming to earn money to feed his family -- each has an enormous incentive to succeed, and in order to do so, adapt to our way of life.

RACHEL MORAN (University of California, Berkeley/Law School): In the parlance of the popular media, there is a phenomenon called "fighting the question." Fighting the question means rejecting its underlying assumptions in order to reconstruct the discussion in a way that reflects some alternative view of the world. So perhaps it’s not surprising that others have resisted the term "balkanization." The term is loaded, suggesting that immigrants somehow "choose" to remain separate out of an antipathy to becoming fully American. It is important to identify the key components of an alternative vision of immigration. Immigrants today arrive already stratified by education, income, and wealth. Latino immigrants on average have lower levels of education, fewer marketable skills, and lower levels of English proficiency than immigrants from other parts of the world. According to 1990 Census data, 40% of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants report speaking English "not well or at all," compared to 22% of Asian immigrants, 5% of African immigrants, and 9% of Canadian and European immigrants.

These differences significantly influence the life chances of immigrants in a society that is growing increasingly stratified by wealth and income. A study in New Jersey by Ana Maria Villegas found that "immigrant children served by low property wealth urban [school] districts are largely from Central and South America, the Caribbean and Vietnam. Immigrant children from India, Japan and Korea tend to attend school in high property wealth urban districts." In short, immigrant children who are most in need find themselves in districts that often have the least resources. This lack of resources translates into inexperienced teachers, large class size, and inadequate materials. Yet, access to skills training is more critical than ever in securing the American dream. While immigrants in an earlier era may have been able to make do in manufacturing jobs despite limited skills and English fluency, today these barriers doom immigrant families to lives of poverty and hardship.

The dangers of segmented assimilation are real; America still has a rendezvous with destiny when it comes to questions of race and class, questions that are only complicated by immigration. As a result, much of the debate over immigration tries to compartmentalize it through discussions of topics like balkanization that suggest that the isolation of immigrants is sui generis and unrelated to the fundamental social and economic divisions in the United States.

SUSAN MARTIN: Barbara Jordan’s statement about the absorptive capacity of the U.S. offers a useful way of thinking about this issue:

The United States is the most successful multiethnic nation in history. It has united immigrants and their descendants from all over the world around a commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles. Those ideals and principles have been embraced by persons from an extraordinary variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds, partly because they permit and protect religious and cultural diversity within a framework of national political unity.

This is not to say that we can take this process for granted. The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, under Ms. Jordan’s leadership, called for a new Americanization movement -- one in which immigrants adapt to life in the U.S., while the broader society grows and strengthens as a result of the presence of immigrants. On a practical level, the Commission called for increased federal support for English language education, civics education, skills training, and other programs to help immigrants adapt and local communities respond to their needs. We made these recommendations, at least in part, because of a recognition that today’s immigrants often come from countries without democratic traditions, and many of them (about 40%) have had little education in their own countries and may not be able to move up the economic ladder, given that today’s economic growth is in the high-skilled, high-tech fields.

MARK KRIKORIAN: The real question is how has American society changed. Does it still have the self-confidence, or even consensus about itself, to communicate forcefully to immigrants and their children an "American-ness" they are supposed to assimilate into? The answer would appear to be "No." Immigrants do assimilate, but they assimilate into a multicultural America, one that rejects its own past, its own heroes, its own myths.

More important than acquisition of language or eating at McDonald’s is what one writer has called "patriotic assimilation," the identification with America’s past as one’s own. Is this happening? When the Korean child in New York public schools studies the Mexican War (if that even happens), is he taught that the Americans are "us" or "them"? This does not, of course, require support of the Mexican War since, after all, Lincoln opposed it as a congressman. But it does require the inculcation of a visceral, emotional identification with America, without which assimilation simply cannot be said to have occurred. The problem, thus, is not that immigrants are unworthy of us, but that we are unprepared for them, and are not likely to be anytime soon.

PAUL ONG (UCLA/Urban Planning, Asian-American Studies, and Social Welfare): The key issue is what the nature of assimilation should be. For some, it is a strong sense of U.S. citizenship, or in Mark Krikorian’s term "patriotic assimilation." In many ways, I also believe that there should be a sense of belonging to this nation. There must be some broad social cohesion. That is determined in part by what Susan Martin points out as "the absorptive capacity of the U.S. Americanization movement." This still leaves questions, however, about what is required of immigrants in terms of identity. It appears that much of what the majority of the public wants is conformity. The old Anglo conformity model may not have many vocal advocates today, but many non-immigrant Americans seem to want immigrants to become like "us." The easy markers for that are language, cultural practices, accepting the prevailing notions of American myths and heroes, etc. Some of us, including myself, find this troubling. In the dichotomy of "them" and "us," I often feel that my roots are tied to "them." The simple solution is to expand the notion of "us," and this has been a part of the pluralism and multiculturalism movement. Nothing in this area, however, is simple. While I am a backer of multiculturalism, I also believe that I have an obligation to address the need to build some social cohesion. Immigrants should have a strong sense of membership in our society and a commitment to making it better. I have been told that you cannot do both, but perhaps that is one of the great challenges before us if we are to build a better nation of immigrants.


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