The Complex Nature of Assimilation—Should Immigrant Children be “Americanized”?

I knew I hadn’t a clue about immigrant children today when a student in a bilingual classroom once said, “My parents hate the United States.”  It knocked me senseless. 

The student volunteered this information, not as a shameful admission, but as a statement of warning.  The warning was loud and clear: “Do not make us love America or American democracy, because we don’t.  We are here because we have to be here, not because we want to be here.  We can’t wait to leave.”

For someone like me, who came from immigrant parents that love this country, with family members that have served in foreign wars for the United States, this was incredible. 

How can you hate a country that gives you so much?  You’re getting free education, free breakfast and lunch, probably public assistance, and free medical care.  That’s more than I get, and I’m supposedly middle class.  How can someone be so ungrateful?   Would you trade this for, Cuba, for example?  Maybe Iran, or North Korea?  You think they’re better than here?  Would you like living in a potato sack all your life, or starving in a “re-education” center?  How about constantly getting spied on by your neighbors while trying to start that ’56 Buick for the umpteenth time?

This student was probably not alone in her sentiments.  It seems the Melting Pot Express lost some baggage along the way, especially in the immigrants of the last few decades.  The rush to become “American” is no longer a fait accompli, but a process that educators need to understand in order to deal with immigrant children.

 Assimilation, the process of integrating immigrant groups into mainstream American society, hit some roadblocks when it came to many of my Bronx students.  This new generation of immigrants is not the huddled masses in steerage class yearning to learn English and be Americans—it was probably not that simple even then.  According to a 2006 report for the Manhattan Institute, conducted by Jacob Vigdor of Duke University:

“The current level of assimilation remains lower than it was at any point during the early 20th century wave of immigration.”

Vigdor also points out that even though aggregate assimilation is low, the patterns and depth of integration varies by ethnic group.  For example, Mexicans tend to assimilate at a slower rate, yet Cubans, Filipinos and Vietnamese tend to assimilate faster.  Furthermore, the rate of assimilation is, on the whole, faster, even though current immigrants have often bore little resemblance to the native population. 

Even with this data, there are disparities even in the process of assimilation, let alone assimilation itself.  According to Susan Brown and Frank Bean at the University of California, Irvine, assimilation theory has evolved into three groups:

(1)    Classic Assimilation—this is the yarn you were told in the classroom since you were little.  The European immigrants came to this country, lived in ethnic neighborhoods, learned English and the values of hard work, democracy and the primacy of the capitalist system, and within a few generations moved to the suburbs to send kids to college and join country clubs.  This linear view forgets an important caveat: even though the immigrants looked “foreign” in the beginning, white America figured out pretty quickly that they were also white.  That meant excluding those who were not white—a lesson learned very quickly by that early generation.  Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) is a perfect example: to become “American”, he needed to ridicule blacks.

(2)    Racial/Ethnic Disadvantage Model—Al should’ve studied this pattern more closely.  This can also be viewed as the “Man’s Keepin’ me Down!” model.  Made popular by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer in their work Beyond the Melting Pot, the racial/ethnic disadvantage model states that some immigrant groups can never fully assimilate because of institutional barriers and lingering racial/ethnic prejudices.  No matter how hard they try, some groups can never fully become “Americanized” due to their skin color, their ethnicity, religion, etc.  Immigrants from Latin America often fall into this category, as their multiracial makeup can often lead to outsider status, even among the most upwardly mobile. 

(3)    Segmented Assimilation—this pattern is the most complex, and probably the most accurate of the three.  Simply stated, the multiple avenues to employment, acculturation, communication and education have created multiple patterns of assimilation, depending on socioeconomic factors, age, education, etc.  The immigrants of the inner city, for example, will encounter more structural barriers and have a rougher time assimilating and can lead to a heightened ethnic consciousness, even as others of the same ethnic group go through a different process.  Other more advantaged groups, however, may use traditional values to bolster advancement and progress.  This explains why so many Asians are at or near the top at spelling bees, science fairs and college enrollment, while other groups lag behind.

Patterns of assimilation have clear implications for the classroom.  As different groups gravitate through the process of integrating into American society, their mindsets will differ based on that process.  This process channels into the natural prejudices of students.  We can’t expect every child to come in as Jose and to leave as Joe.  It’s a heck of a time for Jose to figure out who Jose is, let alone to embrace a culture and system that is alien to him.

That being said, there is still a value to incorporating American values, ideals and cultural traditions in the classroom.  This is their country now, after all, and their success in America will depend on their familiarity and knowledge of American institutions and systems.  There are certain things Americans need to be familiar with in order to be American: basic laws, government, traditions, holidays, ideals, institutions, etc.

Today’s educational model, however, does not lend itself to the old methodology of “making Americans.”  There are a myriad of cultures and conditions to consider–conditions that often serve as barriers to assimilation.  What’s important is to take account of the factors that are holding back assimilation and work with them.  The trick is to not be as heavy-handed as the teachers of old, the ones who’d report any child not saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the FBI.

First of all, it’s important to know your students.  With the aforementioned student, I didn’t take into account that her path to America, while similar to my parents, was also vastly different.  For one, my parents are white.  Even if they came from Italy and Ecuador, my mom and dad never had to deal with the double standard based on their appearance.  They were also legal immigrants, so the risk of deportation was never there.  My mom had a different mindset, more like the upper-middle class bourgeoisie she came from, which didn’t mesh with the backgrounds of an inner-city classroom.  Hard work, education and respect for authority were paramount in our house.   Many of my students, especially those from Central America, came here because the authorities prevented them from a decent living.   

When we teach about American civics and citizenship, it’s important to make the individual ideas universal, while stressing the unique Americanness of the aggregate of our ideas.  There is nothing particularly American about capitalism, individual rights, the rule of law, representative government, trial by jury, and the democratic process.  Point out how these ideas have existed in other times and by other groups.  Yet as a whole, the United States is one of the few places where ALL these ideas work as a successful system. 

To understand our institutions, students need to know the history behind these institutions.  Often, this history involves people who are unlike themselves, yet stress the commonality between their struggles and the problems we face today.  The American Revolution is a great example.  The themes of the struggle—justice, representation, tyranny, freedom—are things any kid can relate to if presented in the right way.

The most important thing to remember is to actively make your students part of the American story.  The saddest existence on Earth is to be a stranger in your own country.  I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: this is the only country that allows immigrants to take an active role in its history.  Even with the challenges of the world outside the classroom, your students are part of a unique family—an American family. 

The events and ideas that built this country are a part of them now.  Make it an active part.  Stress that their active participation is what makes America important.  Only then, when students can take full ownership of American culture—on their own terms—can true assimilation really take place.

For further information, here is Jacob Vigdor’s 2006 report on immigrant assimilation.

Also, here’s an article from Susan Brown and Frank Bean on the theories behind assimilation.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Complex Nature of Assimilation—Should Immigrant Children be “Americanized”?

  1. Liliana Alvarez

    I am a Mexican immigrant that has reside in the United States for fifteen years now. I came as a child. Something that I found to be very true in this article is that learning the history of USA is very important. Growing up I was thought about the history and learn to love United States as much or even more then my own country, not because I was receiving free help or anything like that because I wasn’t, but because I was living here. I consider myself a part of the whole, the American dream , the one that every teacher illustrates. “One day you too will go to college and become someone successful.” That whole image of becoming the best I could ever be has not changed. Today, I attend college and pay all of it working as a waitress and taking 18 hours a semester. So if you want to help an immigrant child inspire them to be someone great show them the love you will show any other student. Today I can say that I am as American as Uncle Sam!

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