Is assimilation obsolete?

In 1921, my great-great-grandfather, along with my great-grandfather and grandfather (a one-month old infant at the time) emigrated from Aleppo, a city in Greater Syria, and arrived in the United States. They spoke no English. Like many immigrant households in America, they communicated in their native language at home, while the children growing up in the US learned English at school.

In the 1940s by grandfather joined the US Army and was sent to Europe during the Second World War. Naturally, his family worried about him, fighting thousands of miles away, and craved news about his whereabouts and the overall progress of the war.

It so happened that a gentleman in Paterson, NJ published a newspaper to serve the Arab community and provide them updates. He took Monday's paper in English, translated it, and published Monday's news in Arabic on Tuesday. For a while, this suited my great-grandfather, anxiously anticipating knowledge of his son's fate. But then he began to realize: this is not good enough. My son could be dead. I can’t wait a day to know what is happening!

So like many other immigrants to the United States, he taught himself to read and write in English. Self-determination. For him, it was a necessity. It was also a major step on the road to assimilation.

Assimilation for immigrants to America in decades past was much simpler. People had little choice.

Immigrants arrived by boat, and certainly not in luxury. The weeks long journey was difficult and expensive, and most of all time consuming. So the thought of people traveling back and forth to their home countries was pretty much out of the question.

Secondly, telephones and television did not exist (and if they did they were way too expensive for poor immigrants) and even sending letters to family left behind took weeks if not months, so many people simply lost touch with their relatives.

Outside of grocery shopping in the local ethnic enclave, getting along in society required some degree of familiarity with English. The Electric Company, Phone Company, and voting ballots didn't offer multi-lingual options.

Nowadays, it's a different story. Immigrants arrive to the US and like previous generations, they settle into ethnic enclaves where their native language has primacy. But the similarities end there.

People arrive by airplane. Flights leave daily and if purchased wisely, are competitively priced. The journey back and forth is easy and comfortable. It's all too simple for a 21st century immigrant to keep a pied-à-terre in the homeland.

Keeping in touch with their relatives? A piece of cake. Everyone's got email. Phone cards allow people to call overseas for just pennies a minute. Not to mention instant messenger, webcams, and Skype. Communication is cheap if not free.

Among the first things modern-day immigrants tend to do is hook up satellite dishes (also relatively low cost) so they can follow the news in their countries of origin, in their native language. Who needs to learn English and watch CBS, NBC, or ABC when you've got Telemundo?

Rewind to World War II. If al-Jazeera had existed back then, costing just a few dollars a month, my great-grandfather would never have learned English. He could have followed the news of his soldier son in his own language.

Like it or not, technology is removing the need for immigrants to assimilate into American society or learn English. This is a fact of capitalism and free markets that conservatives just don't want to face. Don't believe me? Click here for an example.

Even the most sensible immigration reformers, like Newt Gingrich, have very little to say about this unstoppable trend, and how to craft policy to adjust accordingly.

Newt offers some thoughts here

  • Returning to English language ballots, to a focus on English language literacy as a prerequisite of citizenship, to an insistence that U.S. dual citizens vote only in the United States and give up voting in their birth nations; These were principles widely understood and accepted for most of American history and they enabled us to absorb millions of immigrants and assimilate them and their children into an American civilization;
  • Enforcing the Oath of Allegiance (and making its understanding and affirmation part of the citizenship test, including specific programs to study for the citizenship test emphasizing American heroes, including military heroes);
  • Focusing federal funds on teaching American history and the principles of American civilization;
  • Rescinding Executive Order 13166 requiring multilingualism in federal documents; and
  • Maintaining English as the primary language of America. English is not and never has been the only language in America. We have a long tradition of people speaking many languages in their local community and with other immigrants. But English has been and should remain our primary language. There should be a National Program for English Instruction...
  • All of these proposals make sense, and I support them all. But they don't address the underlying issue: technology is making assimilation obsolete. We can't ignore this fact, we have to deal with it. More thoughts on this issue soon.