Objection #4: "They Won't Assimilate!"
The new wave of immigrants is no different from past waves. If anything, they are assimilating faster, committing fewer crimes, and contributing more to the economy.
This post is the fifth in a series of articles debunking the most common populist arguments against (mostly) open immigration, based on my dozens of interviews on the topic since I began broadcasting The Bob Zadek Show in 2008.
“I'm not a prejudiced person at all. I work seven days a week, and I will take jobs that they say Americans won't take.
My experience is that the Hispanic community is not friendly towards caucasians and African Americans. They have very expensive trucks and wheels. They're very prejudiced people. Not every one of them, but the majority of them do not like anybody but their own. That's my opinion.
— Tim (a Caller in San Leandro)
Tim was like many callers to my show. His list of grievances against immigrants was long, but he maintained that he was driven not by prejudice. Indeed, if anything, he suggests that the Hispanic community, which makes up a large fraction of current immigrants, is the source of prejudice.
This is hardly the first time in our history that this accusation has been leveled at the predominant migrant groups in the United States.
If you go back to the 1760s, you find Benjamin Franklin writing that German immigrants were taking over Pennsylvania and refusing to assimilate. In the 1840s, there were complaints about the Irish being unwilling to work hard. In the late 1800s, the criticisms were against the Jews and Chinese. But while the ethnicities change, the phenomenon remains the same.
“Not being used to Liberty, [the Germans] know not how to make a modest use of it. [T]he Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted.”
– Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.
Today we look back at those arguments and we rightfully laugh, because we see how thoroughly American their descendants have become. America has more success in assimilating immigrants than any other country in the world.
There have always been insular groups who live on the outskirts of society, from the Amish in Pennsylvania to the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn, New York. However, these groups are notable because they are the exception – not the rule – in America’s great melting pot.
Measuring Assimilation & the Language Question
President Reagan once said, “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.''
Economists have paid a great deal of attention to the question of how you measure something like cultural assimilation, and they have narrowed it down to whether an immigrant or their children are distinguishable from other Americans based on measures like family, religiosity, education level, and civic participation, such as voting, joining the military, etc.
On average, we find that the children of immigrants assimilate by the third generation, such that the grandkids of the immigrants themselves are generally indistinguishable from all other Americans who have been here for a longer period of time.
The most common specific objection to immigration on assimilation grounds revolves around language. “Why don’t they learn English?” people ask.
Marie, a listener from Sonoma, California, called in to the show one day to express her frustration with being unable to communicate with store clerks who don’t speak English.
“I'm supposed to learn how to speak Spanish so that I can shop in my own country?!” she vented, “I don’t live in Mexico. I live in the United States.”
My first response to Marie was that we live in a free market, where she can choose whether or not to patronize stores that employ workers who can’t speak English. Your choice sends a message to the owner of the store that their choice of worker is costing them sales. It’s then up to the business owner to decide whether a cheaper wage is worth the loss of sales.
In our country, people are free to speak whatever language they want in their homes, and I welcome that. However, if they want to survive in the economic system, they will have to learn English, or else their job opportunities will be limited.
While it may seem like Spanish is taking over as the lingua Franca in certain parts of California, this is an illusion that is easily rebutted with recourse to some statistics.
Alex Nowrasteh, my guest when Marie called into the show [Let Them All In, 5/5/13], relayed that 97% of second-generation Hispanic immigrants speak English. Once again, by the time you reach the third generation, the assimilation rate is 100%.
While both Alex and I can relate to the frustrating experience of being unable to communicate with a recent immigrant, we do not let our emotions prevail over the facts.
“The rate at which the people have learned English is faster than any other non-English speaking immigrant groups in American history. It's faster than Italians. It's faster than Jewish immigrants. It's faster than Russian immigrants and it's faster a lot faster than German immigrants ever learned English in this country.” – Alex Nowrasteh
Sociologists call the United States a graveyard of languages because you have millions of people that used to live here who spoke German, Yiddish, Hungarian and Polish – all languages that are dead in the United States. In the next 50 to 100 years, languages like Mandarin, Urdu, and even Spanish are likely to end up practically dead too, because immigrants today and their kids are learning English at such an astonishing rate and forgetting the languages that they came with. The United States will allow the graveyard of languages to grow.
Furthermore, much of the greatness of this country is from bringing their culture. Our language is an amalgam of hundreds of languages. Our culture is an amalgam of many different cultures.
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Do Immigrants Import Political Dysfunction from the Homelands?
Perhaps the most vital question of culture is whether immigrants are as likely as native-born Americans to uphold the values of liberty enshrined in our founding documents. Several callers have phoned in to warn me that immigrants to the United States will vote to turn our country into a socialist dystopia that looks more like the places they are fleeing. It’s the same argument that proud Texans level against Californians who move to Texas: “Soon, liberals exiting the Golden State will turn the Lonestar State into a blue state, with all of the associated failed policies!”
If the evidence supported this argument, it might be enough to convince even hardcore open immigration proponents like me and Nowrasteh to favor some restrictions. After all, the reason America is so prosperous is because of our political institutions and the rule of law. Therefore, if immigrants oppose those institutions, immigration would make us much poorer long term.
First, let’s examine the case of immigration between states.
Benjamin Powell, head of Texas A&M’s Free Market Institute, has examined who tends to move to Texas from California and finds that there is a “selection bias” of who comes there. Powell says:
“If someone just wants to escape the high cost of living in California, they can lower it by moving north to Oregon, or east to Colorado, and still be in crunchy territory. The ones who come here to Texas like the idea of Texas. I say this as a guy who moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Texas to run a Free Market Institute.” [The Economics of Immigration, 2/27/22]
The same, it turns out, is true of immigrants from other countries. Here’s Powell again:
“When immigrants choose to move here, it’s not certainly not with the intent to undermine American institutions that make us wealthy and productive, but instead to become part of that prosperity.”
Those who try the hardest to escape their authoritarian homelands are risk-takers by their nature. They are more entrepreneurial and, surprisingly, tend to perform better economically than immigrants from freer, more democratic countries.
Regardless of their political inclinations, these immigrants also tend to undermine Big Labor by working for themselves. Immigration short-circuits the vicious cycle whereby unions funnel their members’ dues toward the Democrats, who in turn pass legislation (including immigration restrictions) that benefits the unions. While Democrats have traditionally been the party that caters to immigrants, on this issue, a smart Republican would point out the contradiction – as well as the long history of unions leading the charge against immigrant groups. Recall that it was Samuel Gompers – head of the cigarmakers union in San Francisco – who led the anti-Chinese immigrant hysteria on the west coast in the late 1800s.
The bottom line, Powell says, is that more immigration is generally correlated with more economic freedom:
“Historically, in the United States, the government has grown the most and the fastest when immigration was the most closed, which was during the period of time for about 1930 to 1970. The time period since 1970 and before 1930, the government had grown much more slowly. Both of those were time periods when immigration was more open. Even on the state level, the government in states with more immigration is not growing as quickly as in states with less immigration. It’s a pernicious myth. It’s one that unfortunately makes a lot of my Republican and conservative friends against immigration when they otherwise would be for it.”
What About Crime Rates?
In 2015, a local tragedy became a national interest story when Katie Steinle was brutally murdered in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant. It had all the hallmarks for a media frenzy – an innocent young victim with a promising life cut short, and a foreign ‘bad guy’ who made a convenient scapegoat to confirm nativist fears about immigrants committing more crimes.
There was just one problem with the narrative. The foreign-born population in the United States is less than half as likely to be incarcerated than the native-born population. This is true whether you’re talking about legal or illegal immigrants.
In 2010, technology entrepreneur and political writer Ron Unz stirred controversy when he released a 5,000+ word essay in the American Conservative magazine titled The Myth of Hispanic Crime. In it, he took TV personalities like Lou Dobbs to task for sensationalizing non-existent “illegal alien crime waves.”
“Does America face a Hispanic crime problem or merely a Hispanic crime hoax?” Unz asked.
His detailed investigation confirmed that age-adjusted incarceration rates for Hispanics is well below the national average. Adjusting for income levels and that rate falls even further.
“[J]ust as many on the Right succumbed to a fantastical foreign policy that makes the world much more dangerous than it needs to be, some have also accepted the myth that Hispanic immigrants and their children have high crime rates. Such an argument may have considerable emotional appeal, but there is very little hard evidence behind it.'“
Nowrasteh has also found a tight correlation between the areas with the most immigration and the least crime. What accounts for this? Culturally speaking, Hispanic and Asian populations have strong “family values.” Although this is a generalization, it may explain why they are less prone to commit crimes.
What’s clear is that they are not coming here for the purpose of committing crime, but to have a better life.
George Washington’s Dream: Asylum for the Refuge
None other than our first President, George Washington, was a proponent of allowing refugees in from countries that would otherwise persecute them.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote a letter to a Dutch pastor in which he said, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”
Today, we owe it to those living in countries like North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba, to give them a shot at what we enjoy by the accident of birth.
“I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong” — George Washington
Once again, the selection bias will tend to make it so that primarily the virtuous and courageous citizens of these countries will choose to come to the U.S. If past experience is any guide, they will always assimilate after a short period of time. The moral case for allowing asylum would be strong even if it did not provide direct benefits to this country. They should be welcomed, so long as they don't harm me or my property, and as long as they are willing to work. The fact that we need them to contribute to our Social Security merely strengthens the case.