Assimilation policy is uneasy answer to immigration problems

Matt Telleen

TThe American reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks has left President George W. Bush in a difficult position regarding immigration. National security demands tighter border restrictions and increased controls, yet Bush’s pro-business instincts tell him the economy can benefit from inexpensive labor provided by immigrants.

This is not the first time immigration has divided a politician, as neither party has a clear position on this controversial issue. For Republicans, many social conservatives distrust immigrants and would protect U.S. borders in order to preserve what they feel is the American identity. In addition to the security threat that is so prevalent in today’s world, social conservatives see immigrants posing other threats to our identity as Americans, whether it’s foreign languages, traditions or religions.

At the same time, fiscal conservatives understand business needs affordable labor and that free trade and free migration logically go hand in hand. Economically, the person who can provide the skill most efficiently and most cheaply is the one who should get the job, and closed-border patriotism has no place in sound economic policy.

For Democrats, social liberals welcome new immigrants as a continuing of the blending of cultures that has made the United States what it is today. This country was founded by immigrants, and allowing people from countries with low standards of living to migrate to the United States is both humane and practical.

However, the economic left sees immigrants as a threat to U.S. jobs and U.S. standards of living. The United States already has many poor residents without proper shelter and health care, and employees making minimum wage already struggle to support themselves and their families. Adding more citizens could increase poverty, hurt unions and burden already over-burdened social programs. The idea would be to solve the problems for the people that are here now before we allow too many others into the country.

One suggested solution is selective immigration, programs that decide who can immigrate based on several factors. This is of course how it is done now, but the suggestion would be that current factors such as asylum and familial connections be removed, leaving one’s potential for assimilation the only criteria.

Which immigrants assimilate the easiest? The factors considered when determining assimilation make many people nervous because they are not very politically correct. Education and work skills are of course considered, but so are religion, language, gender and race. Making determinations based on these criteria should make both anti-discrimination liberals and anti-affirmative action conservatives nervous. However, if assimilation is the goal, these distinctions are simply pragmatic. The more you have in common with your new neighbors, the easier it will be for you to fit in and become part of the community and part of the culture.

Those who argue the importance of assimilation say the more immigrants become part of their new country, the more of the concerns listed above by those against immigration can be addressed. For those concerned with security, it should seem obvious that immigrants who become a part of U.S. culture pose less threat than those who live here but remain disconnected from the aspects of the United States that make Americans feel connected to their homeland. At the same time, the more skills and education the immigrants have, the less likely they are to push wages downward and take jobs from poor Americans.

A policy based on assimilation has its weaknesses. The first is that many of the unskilled laborers who businesses desire would be screened out by a policy that put a premium on the ability to assimilate. And the concept of assimilation makes many people nervous. The idea of assimilation led to horribly inhumane programs and justified much of the violence against American Indians during the settling of America by Europeans. And many immigration advocates think it’s important that immigrants are allowed – even encouraged – to return home at some point. Assimilation makes this more difficult, because culture and language have been sacrificed in the name of fitting in.

Assimilation also has problems in execution as well as in theory. Some would argue governmental agencies should work to ensure assimilation through legislation, such as making English the national language or insisting on things such as the national anthem, or even prayer, in our nation’s schools. However, on the other side we have people fighting for policies that make immigrants feel more welcome – legislation that would increase religious tolerance by including recognition of specific times for prayer and religious holidays and that would provide education in languages other than English.

Perhaps assimilation cannot be mandated by government but must be worked at by people. Perhaps those who come to this country must be asked to make many compromises, including recognizing their traditions and cultures might clash with existing U.S. practices. But at the same time, perhaps Americans must adjust those practices to make new citizens feel welcome without losing our national identity.

There might be no one easy answer to immigration policy, and Bush will not be the last leader pulled in two different directions by the complex, and often competing, issues involved. But the good news is we’ve done it before. It has been argued that every concern regarding Muslim immigrants today was made 200 years ago when the Irish brought their devout Catholicism to a country that found their practices disruptive. But both sides compromised and, in the end, Irish-Catholic immigrants made remarkable contributions to this country and helped make it what it is today.

Matt Telleen’s biweekly column usually appears Mondays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]