The Unwanted Minority: Immigration and Assimilation in America

The approach of Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, has brought back to the forefront one of the most interesting religious icons celebrated today: Santa Muerte, literally, Saint Death. Said to symbolize new beginnings, this pseudo-saint is not recognized by the Catholic Church or the Mexican government. In spite of this, the number of devotees to Santa Muerte continues to swell, attracted by tales of the remarkable miracles she performs, and the promise of a new start. Yet allegiance to Santa Muerte brings a price: she is said to take away as she gives, and many adherents are desperate. The ordeal of believing in Santa Muerte closely parallels the experience of many of her followers in the United States. Many are Mexican immigrants. Attracted to the prospect of better opportunities in America, Mexicans usually arrive and take some of the most menial jobs available for the lowest pay. Like immigrants before them, they must learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and confront discrimination.

And in this morass the debate rages, among Americans and among races. Many critics of this immigrant population cite the “success” of Asian-Americans in overcoming these same obstacles as a reason to irrationally discriminate against Latinos. Dubbed the “Model Minority,” Asian-Americans have higher income levels than whites, despite having greater challenges, and Asian-American students are not granted affirmative action advantages because of the high numbers of qualified applicants. If Asian-Americans can be so successful, they insist, why aren’t others? This question seems to warrant some sort of cultural or genetic explanation, the implications of which are dangerous.

To hold other minorities to this standard ignores the differences in the characteristics of the two populations. Asian-Americans are often college-educated when they arrive in the U.S., and the people who can afford to emigrate from Asia are usually middle-class and upper-class, due to the higher costs of migrating across an ocean. American visa laws also favor college-educated workers. Therefore, Asian immigrants tend to already have high social status in their original countries. Most immigrants from Mexico have a partial high-school education, and the likelihood that a Mexican will immigrate to America goes down when he has gone to college. On a large scale, immigration from Mexico substantially increases the number of unskilled laborers who have not graduated from high school, while having little effect on other brackets.

While the two populations come to the U.S. for similar reasons, the nature of the two first-generation populations is different. Indeed, the nature of the Mexican-American immigrant population seems to draw more similarities with the Irish migration in the early 1800s. When they first arrived, most were underprivileged and poorly-educated, though they had less of a language barrier. Back then, the requirements to enter the U.S. were much fewer; one did not have to complete the volumes of visa paperwork that they have to today. You could argue that they were documented as much as illegal immigrants are now.

A recent New York Times article entitled “Our Town” featured Judy Sigwalt and Paul Humpfer, two anti-immigration activists in Carpentersville, Illinois, a town of 37,000 about forty-five miles from Chicago. They insist that Mexican immigrants are fundamentally different from the immigrants before, and that their stand is primarily against illegal immigrants. Unlike immigrants in the past, Mexican immigrants “don’t have the love of this country in their hearts.”

Immigration has been fundamental to the history of the United States. Though foreign-born people since 1675 have never constituted more than fifteen percent of the population, they have had great impact on the culture of the U.S, from the Irish in the early 19th century to the Jews and Poles of the late 19th century to the Hispanics and Asians since the 1960s. And like before with the Know-nothings and seditionists, new nativists like Sigwalt and Humpfer have cropped up, bearing alarmist sentiments about the new arrivals, the gist of which is mostly this: “They’ll never assimilate, and they’ll never be one of us.”

Such a conviction demands action only from the immigrants; that integration into a culture is a one-sided absorption, like a sponge soaking in water. The definition of “American” is fixed, and it is the immigrant’s job to fit in it. But anyone looking at individuals considered “American” today will see a great variety of ethnicities–Italians, Czech, Jews–that were considered foreign only a century ago. Those first-generation immigrants looked different and spoke different languages, and three or four generations later, the descendents of the first immigrants have adapted and speak English. With the exception of intermarriage, many of them share the darker appearances of their foreign-looking ancestors. In short, looks that were foreign in the past are now considered unremarkably American. One doubts that this was just the immigrants’ doing; the mainstream has also expanded its idea of American to accept many different people. If the new immigrants never assimilate, that is not wholly their fault.

Not to say that assimilation is necessarily a positive. Despite the nativists’ mongering, English is firmly the nation’s primary language, and children of immigrants are almost always fluent in English; according to one survey by the Department of Health and Human Services, eighty percent of first generation immigrant children speak English well; that figure rises to ninety-four percent by the second generation. The rate of bilingualism, however, decreases with each succeeding generation. Second-generation children also tend to be Americanized very quickly. According to a University of North Carolina study, they have higher obesity rates. A study by Philip Kaufman at the United States Department of Education shows they also achieve higher high school graduation rates. The immigrants may have found a better life in the U.S., but this success is bittersweet, bringing with it alienation between generations and the fading away of their original culture. Assimilation, it seems, works in the xenophobes’ favor, whether they wish that possibility to exist or not.

Sigwalt and Humpfer–those Carpentersville crusaders–seem unconvinced that the assimilation phenomenon touching every other immigration population thus far will extend to Mexicans, and seek legislation to enforce English-only policies in businesses, and to penalize anyone who hires an illegal immigrant. Similar ordinances in other towns such as Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and Riverdale, New Jersey have either been knocked down in the courts or ended up costing the town copious amounts of money in legal costs and lost business. In short, the immigrants, sensing they were not welcome, fled, and town commerce suffered. People originally in support of these policies have realized the costs.
In our own town, the City of Chicago government seems to have realized the perils of such legislation, instead adopting a sanctuary policy in March of 2006, not long after large nationwide protests on immigration policy. In doing so, it joined the ranks of San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City. A sanctuary policy is analogous to “don’t ask, don’t tell”: city employees will not ask a person his immigration status, and, if informed of someone’s illegal status, will not notify the federal government. Like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s a start.