NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Too Many To Assimilate?

April 5, 2001

The latest Census figures have helped demolish complacency about America's ability to assimilate immigrants. Until now, observers note, anyone who questioned that ability risked being labeled intolerant.

The Census Bureau had estimated the nation's population would increase from 249 million in 1990 to 275 million in 2000, with about 35 percent from immigration. In fact, it came in at 281 million - six million extra, either from illegal immigrants or from mostly legal immigrants missed in the 1990 Census.

As a society, observers argue, America's central interest lies in assimilating immigrants, and in multiculturalists getting over the notion that assimilation is dated and detestable. And while American assimilation has never demanded rigid social conformity, it has always required three things:

  • Immigrant families had to adopt English as the national language.
  • They had to take pride in their American identity and the country's democratic principles.
  • They had to embrace the so-called Protestant ethic - to be hard-working, self-reliant and morally upright.

Ultimately, assimilation can be successful; a recent Washington Post survey found that on many issues the attitudes of third-generation Latinos mirrored those of other Americans.

But assimilation has never been easy.

  • About 30 percent of immigrant children are in poverty, according to the Urban Institute.
  • In 1999, wages for immigrant Hispanic men were only about 68 percent those of U.S. workers.

Some observers believe that in order to benefit from immigration we may need a little less of it, rather than be overwhelmed by too many newcomers. We may also need to favor skilled over unskilled immigrants to improve the odds for assimilation.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "Can America Assimilate?" Newsweek, April 9, 2001.


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