Rajagopalan: What is assimilation success?

More than 10 million people live among us More than 10 million people live among us illegally and year after year we look away. Photo Credit: Getty

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Kavitha Rajagopalan is the author of "Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West."

What matters more: Whether people enter the country legally or what kind of people come here in the first place? It's a question worth thinking about when you consider that, according to Manhattan Institute scholar Jacob Vigdor, Canada's immigrants are far better assimilated than America's, in part because Canada admits a higher percentage of skilled migrants that we do.

In the latest installment to its ongoing study of immigrant assimilation, the conservative think tank tackles the question of which countries seem to be, in essence, getting it right.

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Despite ongoing hostility toward immigration reform and even, by some, toward immigrants themselves, amid a Supreme Court decision to uphold one of Arizona's controversial immigration laws and new efforts by South Carolina and Wisconsin to crack down on illegal immigration, the study suggests that America is doing a better job at assimilating immigrants than Europe, even if it still has lessons to learn from Canada.

Before we can debate whether we're getting it right, however, first we must agree what "it" is. Vigdor defines assimilation as the degree of similarity between the native- and foreign-born populations, which he measures along economic, civic and cultural indicators.

Of course, there are significant differences between native-born Americans in all of these areas. Across states, regions and even within a single town, you'll find native-born Americans with vastly different religious views, political philosophies, economic values, degrees of education and levels of income.

We cannot get immigration right by focusing on assimilation alone. In fact, we can't even really agree on what assimilation means -- to many, it simply means speaking English, but to others, it incorporates a larger gamut of cultural and even religious values.

Instead, we should focus on integration -- which we can link to much more tangible questions of access, rights and opportunities. Although some people use the term integration and assimilation interchangeably, the burden of integration is distributed between the immigrant, the broader society and government, whereas the burden of assimilation falls primarily on the immigrant.

When we think about integration, we should ask whether our policies create barriers to the education and employment opportunities, social services and institutions, and cultural resources that ultimately can enable an immigrant to decide who he or she wants to be.

There is no greater barrier to integration than immigration status. Even immigrants with a legal right to be here can face restrictions in access to jobs, education and government representatives. And the path to American citizenship is beset by our bloated and inefficient immigration infrastructure. Canada's path to citizenship is shorter and more direct than ours -- perhaps this, and not the type of people they let in, is the deciding factor in its assimilation success. It's easier to fit in where you've been invited and welcomed.

Vigdor says that higher-skilled, more educated immigrants are more likely to share cultural and civic values with Americans. Certainly the overwhelming majority of immigrants would prefer to be highly paid members of the American middle class. But when the demand for low-skilled, low-income labor is so great, what incentive is there to exclude all immigrants who don't have the starting advantages to achieve this dream right away? And who is to say that being poor or illiterate means that you don't share the American dream?

The premises of this study point to a brief, earlier time, when American culture was a lot more uniform, fewer immigrants sought entry, the demand for foreign-born, low-skilled workers was lower, and global migration wasn't as complex as it is now.

Rather than taking on the complexity of culture, identity and migration in the modern world, we would be better served to reform the policies we have. This means that how people enter the country ultimately does matter more than who comes -- or who they ultimately choose to become.

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