Americans have little confidence that assimilation is happening today as it once did. According to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll, 44 percent of Americans believe that today's immigrants are not as willing to assimilate as those who came during the early 1900s. Their confidence is not likely to grow with the release of a new Pew Hispanic Center report, which shows that by 2050 nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States will be foreign-born. Nativists, such as columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, who has gone so far as to claim that the refusal of immigrants to assimilate is contributing to a state of emergency for American culture, are spurring this lack of confidence. What is prevailing is a one-eyed view that ignores the central principle of immigrant assimilation: It is an engine that runs on economic opportunity.
Our collective lack of confidence in assimilation stems from the fact that we have forgotten how it works. We tend to think that assimilation is born of a sudden decision, or that it is driven by some sort of epiphanic realization that assimilation is a smart choice. This misreading of assimilation gives rise to commonly heard refrains as, "Immigrants don't want to assimilate," "Why don't they assimilate like my ancestors did?" and "They just want to keep to themselves instead of becoming American."
In actuality, assimilation is a multigenerational process that unfolds as individuals pursue their economic aspirations. Assimilation is, in fact, a story of unintended consequences resulting from this pursuit. If we look closely, we can see the story being written everywhere. Assimilation is starting to take place in the life of a Dominican maid who comes to the United States for a better life, inches along the road of advancement, and gets a better job. She moves to a better neighborhood, where there may be fewer people of her ethnicity.
Assimilation is evident in the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. She works at a high-tech company, where she met her future husband, the great-grandson of Irish immigrants.
The grandson of Mexican farmworkers, knowing full well the economic advantages that come with more education, is attending college, where he is making lifelong friendships with an ethnically mixed crowd.
Assimilation can be seen inside a suburban home, where a Filipino immigrant and his high-school sweetheart, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, are raising their two daughters. For all of these people, and millions of others like them, the pursuit of economic success inadvertently makes their ethnic origins a decreasingly important factor in how they conduct their lives -- how they choose their friends, their mates and their neighborhood.
And so the story of American assimilation should be regarded first as a tale of economic advancement -- moving to a new neighborhood, going to college, getting a better job, intermarrying -- and secondarily as a story about identity. Sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee summarize it best when they write that assimilation is "something that frequently happens to people while they are making other plans."
Of course, not everyone moves up the ladder. Some families remain stuck in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where there are too few pathways to economic success, and therefore too few chances to assimilate. Children grow up in poverty, and overcrowded and underfunded schools leave them ill prepared to compete in an economy that rewards brains far more than brawn. The consequences of squelched economic opportunity are all too apparent. Economic insecurity in the home and a lack of opportunities in school combine to drive some children of immigrants to underachieve.
Assimilation is not a choice. It is what comes about when people have the opportunity to improve their economic position. And so we are wasting our breath with demands that people hurry up and learn English to become American. Assimilation will happen when we power its engine. That means bringing to bear those forces that improve and increase educational and economic opportunities. Assimilation will proceed when we increase funding for schools and after-school programs in areas with large immigrant populations, expand state and federal grants that make college more affordable, improve vocational programs for those who are not college-bound, and expand internship programs that broaden the horizons of new Americans. Measures such as these help ensure that immigrants and their descendents have a chance to make other plans.