Mythbusters: The Truth About Immigrants and Assimilation

By Allison Johnson 10-20-2010

[Editor's Note: Myths and misinformation abound when it comes to the topic of immigration reform. Sojourners and Church World Service have partnered to present a joint blog series, "Mythbusters." Each day, we'll explore myths and facts about the current immigration system and reflect on how people of faith can respond.]

MYTH: Immigrants are not assimilating and don't want to learn English.

FACT: Immigrants are assimilating at much the same rate as past waves of immigrants.

There is a widespread assumption that today's immigrants, unlike immigrants of the past, are not interested in learning English and this "influx" of immigrants, predominantly from Latin America, is larger than in any other time in history. However, every wave of immigrants in America has been accused of not assimilating into American society, according to Jason Riley, author of Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders. As popular this narrative may be, it is based in perception rather than reality.

Here are some facts about immigrants and assimilation:

  • There are more immigrants currently entering the United States per year than in the past, but at a lower rate of the overall U.S. population than during past waves of immigration. For example, during the 1990s, about 1.5 Mexican immigrants entered for every 1,000 U.S. residents per year. In the mid-19th century, there were an estimated 3.6 Irish immigrants entering each year for every 1,000 (Riley, 2008).
  • Language is often seen as the key to integration into society. Throughout history, newly arrived adult immigrants have not been fluent English speakers. However, English language acquisition picks up rapidly for their children and the second and third generations. The vast majority of immigrants who came to the U.S. as children speak English well. Among the second generation, 92 percent of Latinos and 96 percent of Asians are English proficient and many are bilingual in their mother tongue. By the third generation, 72 percent of Latinos and 92 percent of Asians speak only English (Alba, Richard, "Bilingualism Persists, But English Still Dominates", 2005).
  • Demand for English classes at the adult level far exceeds supply, and learning a new language requires a great deal of time and instruction. A 2006 survey conducted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials found that in 12 states, 60 percent of the free English programs had waiting lists, ranging from a few months in Colorado and Nevada to as long as two years in New Mexico. In Massachusetts, more than 180,000 residents are on a waiting list for ESL classes, with an average wait of six months to two years (Alba, 2005).

In addition to pointing to the facts about language acquisition among immigrants, there are deeper questions that we should ask and explore with regard to assimilation. What does assimilation really mean, and why is it valued in this society? For those whose parents or grandparents worked to integrate themselves into mainstream American life generations ago, assimilation may be a source of pride and an inherent assumption with regard to today's immigrants. "My grandparents did it, so why can't they?"

For those who are recent immigrants or children of immigrants, it may represent loss of language, culture, and identity. It may mean a mother having to choose whether or not she will speak to her child in her native language. Assimilation may mean moving out of an ethnic neighborhood filled with the smells, sounds and spirit of their home country in order to achieve upward mobility. It can also mean a loss of the religious beliefs or values associated with ones' first culture such as respect for elders and the importance of the family unit, traded in for prevailing American values of individualism and materialism. To gain one thing is to give another thing up, a balancing act that immigrants have been juggling for generations.

As the United States moves closer toward a majority population that is not white, largely in part to the immigrant population, questions around assimilation and what it means to be "American" will continue to be raised. As people of faith, I believe we are called to look beyond just the myths and facts and delve into what it means to belong.

Allison Johnson

Allison Johnson is the campaign coordinator of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

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