Immigrants and Assimilation

by Peter Spiro

I’m not going directly to take on Jon’s latest post on naturalization rates. It’s quite complicated, and Jon’s correct that it has to take into account flows and stock. It’s clear that the rate has been rising. For those interested in a detailed analysis, check out this report by Jeffrey Passel from the Pew Hispanic Center.

That doesn’t answer the question of why immigrants are naturalizing in higher numbers. I agree with Jon that some immigrants in the past have no doubt naturalized for instrumental reasons. I suspect there are more who are doing so today. Dual citizenship again is a crucial factor. In the past, you had to choose. Should I forfeit my original citizenship, something on the order (in Peter Schuck’s formulation) of abandoning your first love? That probably made more likely the convergence of affective and instrumental motivations in the naturalization decision. Today, you can add a citizenship for instrumental reasons (even trivial ones, like getting the better treatment at the airport) without being forced to factor in sentimental factors (and “loyalty”, whatever that means today). (I have some quibbles with Jon’s characterization of practices relating to dual citizenship in the 19th and early 20th century which I’ll hope to point out in a comment to his post.)

The ultimate question here might be whether immigrants are assimilating. (There’s a report out just yesterday from the Manhattan Institute which offers up some conflicting evidence. On the one hand, the study shows some uptick in assimilation among recent arrivals. On the other, it concludes that assimilation is lower today than among immigrants of a century ago. A perfect case of dueling headlines: compare this with this!)

I think the answer is probably yes and no, and I’m not sure it makes a difference. Yes in the sense that most immigrants know the basics of constitutional democracy and American popular culture. No, however, to the extent that they may not be connecting in a way that’s any different from the way that the rest of the world is connecting to the United States. In other words, the immigrant from Manila or Santo Domingo or Seoul or Zacatecas may be assimilated, but not much more assimilated than the family members she left behind.

There may be a partial answer in here to Jon’s most recent post on diasporic communities. It also works with what I call happenstance Americans. Born in the US, citizenship for life, leaves at age 2: that person wil probably end up knowing a fair amount about the United States and be connected to it in various ways, but not necessarily much more than her non-US citizen neighbor in the foreign country in which she now lives. If everyone’s an American, citizenship becomes an arbitrary binary, dividing haves and have-nots in a way that doesn’t reflect social realities on the ground, and it becomes unable to do the sort of work it has in the past.

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