Thursday, August 02, 2007

Why some immigrants don't assimilate and what not to do about it.

The issue of cultural integration for immigrants is a hot topic. Certainly, as someone who came from a family of immigrants, I know the process well. My great-grandmother spoke to me frequently when I was a child. I never understood a word she said and she didn’t understand what I said.

She couldn’t speak English and that was all I spoke. Her daughter, my grandmother, was fully bilingual. She could understand both of us perfectly. And after my great grandmother died my grandmother reverted to only English and within a few years couldn’t remember anything else.

My father spoke only English as did my generation the next one as well. And the same pattern was repeated on my mother’s side of the family just with a different language.

All the evidence shows the same pattern among immigrants to the United States. Many are already fans of America and have assimilated much American culture before they left their homes. If the immigrant generation can’t speak English the children are normally bilingual and the grandchildren often English-speaking only. Because the Mexican immigrant population of the US is constantly being replenished with new immigrants many Americans are silly enough to believe this assimilation isn’t taking place.

And surveys of immigrants in the US shows that cultural values tend to shift as well. Even first generation immigrants see many changes in their views of life. Though they tend to be less criminally prone than the native born it is unfortunate that their children or great children tend to begin acting like more typical Americans. There are some American values that shouldn’t be assimilated. Regardless of what the xenophobes and Malthusian doom sayers argue immigrants in America assimilate for the most part and relatively quickly compared to other places in the world.

Europe has the opposite experience. Der Spiegel has an article discussing one of Amsterdam’s mayors, an immigrant himself, and his campaign to promote assimilation. They describe the problem as immigrants with “little pressure to conform to Dutch customs and lifestyles” exemplified by the “hangjongeren” (guys who hang out) who are “unemployed men with no prospects of getting jobs.

There is ample documentation that many immigrant groups remain unassimilated in Europe for several generations, right up until today. They tend to either not speak the local language or speak it very, very poorly. They drop out of school and simply hang around. In France they take to setting cars alight for entertainment.

Why is there rapid acculturation in the United States and but little in Europe?

Part of the reason depends on the incentives to acclimate. Most of American immigration is illegal. Such immigrants qualify for few benefits. There are strong incentives for them to find a job, any job. And that is why they came. Few come expecting welfare, contrary to the racist diatribes of some.

And what they find is that English, even small amounts of it, is rewarding financially. The more English they speak the more likely they will find employment and what they find is better employment. Someone lacking any English might be confined to picking fruit, cleaning gardens or washing cars. English skills, even rudimentary ones, could mean employment inside air conditioned fast food outlets. Each step toward acculturation comes with market-based financial rewards. The incentive is to acclimate.

Historically the US regulated access to welfare but not to work. So immigrants worked which encourage acculturation.

Europe took a protectionist/welfare state view of immigrants. They tended to restrict access to the work place through a series of regulations compared to America’s formerly more deregulated work place. But when it came to welfare the socialist mentality was benefits for all even if the immigrants were illegal.

They restricted access to jobs but not access to welfare. The incentive to integrate into the broader society wasn’t there. There was no need for it. Successive generations of the same family could do this. Dropping out of school didn’t matter as the welfare checks, continued to come in. Seeking jobs was useless as the highly regulated, highly taxed economies didn’t produce much employment for such people. And why bother if the welfare benefits are sufficiently generous -- something Europeans frequently brag about. There is little need to learn the language or integrate at all.

Attempts to integrate are restricted by the regulatory and tax climate. And failure to integrate is generously subsidized by the welfare state.

Nativists in the US are now pushing through more and more state controls to create a European style labor market. Access is being restricted every chance they get. At the same time they bitch about immigrants not acclimating to US culture fast enough. There are none so blind....

Such restrictions will actually hinder acculturation. Some, no doubt, prefer that as it proves their bigoted views, or so they think. They are implementing policies which create the very problem. Seeking employment is a strong incentive for the cultural shift that is required to blend into a new society. Restricting access to those incentives will only retard the acculturation process.

And here is what the conservatives pushing this bigotry should consider. As more and more jobs are denied illegal immigrants then there are incentives to steal identity in order to seek employment. Reducing the incentives for that is a good thing. Second, employed immigrants are not sponging off the system, if anything they are subsidizing native born welfare recipients. Third, employed immigrants are rewarded for acclimating to the culture through higher wages. This is precisely the process the xenophobes pretend they want.

Immigrants who find it harder and harder to be employed tend to still be better off in the US than in Mexico. So the immigration issue won’t disappear. But the tax revenue from employed immigrants will disappear. And if poverty levels increase steadily among immigrants we may see pressure from the Left to expand the welfare state to allow access to these programs.

If that happens the US is on the road to the non-assimilation problem in Europe. The labor market becomes more restrictive while welfare programs are expanded to replace the jobs which were denied. Long term that is a problem, something Europe has found out. Unfortunately Europe is still blinded by ideology to the reality of the system. They will tinker with the labor regulations but for the most part they will stay. They will tinker with the welfare but it will remain generous. If anything they will invent more benefits which are supposed to encourage assimilation but won’t. They will dance around the edges but never get to the heart of the problem. And they will wonder why the problem continues unabated.

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