The Importance of Assimilation in Immigration




Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   11-18


ABSTRACT:  Our society (U.S.A.) has assumed that immigrants would assimilate into the existing culture fairly readily, but conditions of immigration have changed so that assimilation may no longer be inevitable.  The potential consequences of this are discussed.


KEY WORDS:  immigration, assimilation, social integration


Immigration brings definite benefits to the receiving society, including new ideas and opportunities for cultural evolution as well as the additional labor that aging societies need in order to maintain the same quality of life for the overall society.  In the waves of immigrants experienced by our society at different times in the past, assimilation of those immigrants into the surrounding culture has generally occurred and has been fairly complete by the second or third generation of those families.  Conditions of immigration have changed, though, so that we can no longer be sure that such assimilation will occur.


Since human beings prefer to use the knowledge and skills they already have rather than to change, immigrants tend to hold onto the things they know when they come to a new country—language, worldview, beliefs, customs, etc.  This natural avoidance of change acts to slow integration of such a person into the new surrounding society.  (The necessities of life—i.e., making a living, tend to push immigrants toward assimilation.)  It is natural to want to gain some advantages from being in the new society (job, money, safety) without having to change (learn a new language, adopt new social practices), and when there are large numbers of immigrants from the same background in the same locale, they will tend to group together and form ethnically-oriented neighborhoods or even towns.  Residents of such population concentrations have more support from being with persons with basically the same assumptions and expectations about life, but they are also more isolated from the surrounding culture than they would be if they did not have as much support from similar persons.  All immigrants benefit emotionally from support, but if this relative isolation continues, they have less chance to assimilate and thereby to take full advantage of being in the new culture.  In a similar vein, some immigrant parents actively try to keep their children from assimilating.  Fitting in is crucial to moving up an employment ladder, and being proficient in the dominant language and knowing how to relate comfortably to people of the dominant culture are key to “fitting in.”

Our government, with its tradition of granting citizens as much freedom as possible, does not intervene in this situation to promote assimilation.  In the past we have assumed that no such action was needed because we assumed that the second or third generations of immigrant families would naturally want to fit in better and would change to do so.  The recent experience, however, of many European countries (e.g., sizeable immigrant enclaves in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, several cities in England), is that this does not always happen, leading to unhappiness and “us vs. them” attitudes on the part of immigrants as well as in the surrounding culture.  This is a greater problem the larger the immigrant community, because larger communities afford more possibilities for avoiding the stresses of assimilation.  Isolation is enhanced by the development of institutions within the immigrant community, such as churches, newspapers in the old language, radio stations, etc.  These institutions are innocuous in themselves, and they provide support, but their existence acts against assimilation, and if assimilation is necessary to avoid intercultural conflicts within a society, then it may behoove us to consider the matter in more depth.  Also, the more different the immigrant’s basic beliefs and preferences are from those of the dominant culture, the more difficult assimilation will be.  It can be argued that assimilation was easier for immigrants from European backgrounds than it is for those with Middle-Eastern and North African backgrounds.


Many Americans are currently ambivalent about immigration, on the one hand wanting to share the benefits of our society and form of government but concerned on the other hand about the significant negative effects on society of having a large number of people who are culturally different from the mainstream.  The false belief that there are no problems from having large numbers of people in the country with other customs and worldviews is unfortunately a fairytale based only on the fact that our society has absorbed large numbers of immigrants before without having to do anything about it, and this view seems credible only because most of those previous immigrants chose to assimilate.  If large numbers of immigrants choose not to assimilate or to assimilate only to a minimum degree, our situation would be different.


The basic psychological problem for both immigrants and the surrounding society is difference.  We human beings are naturally afraid of what is different and what we do not understand, so the more different immigrants are (or appear to be), the greater the fear on both sides.  Interactions between people with different basic assumptions about life and relationships (gender equality/inequality, honor killing, physical punishment of children, etc.) take more energy to navigate, even when the results are positive.  Some degree of assimilation, then, is essential to the equanimity of the overall society.  If there exist sizeable and different cultural groups in a nation, that nation will be held back from “progress” and will have part of its energies sapped by cultural conflicts.  Our current wealth and technology also make it more possible for immigrants to stay among themselves and not assimilate.


In response to this uneasiness about the world’s current patterns of immigration, it is important for all of us to advocate for and practice greater inter-cultural tolerance.  Theoretically it might be possible for an entire culture to come to be comfortable enough with cultural differences that immigrants being “different” would not impact social relations or hiring practices, but, practically, this is very unlikely to happen.  As noted, interactions between people with different basic assumptions about life and relationships take more energy, and people in the dominant culture can understandably resent having to adjust at all to immigrants who are “different.”


A society can only exist peaceably if a sufficient percentage of its members hold the values that underpin the culture and perform certain behaviors that follow from those values; otherwise it will develop more than one major cultural movement, and these groups will inevitably be in conflict.  English and French speakers in Canada have different cultures, and while Canadians have coped with this comparatively well, the adjustments on both sides are incomplete and have led to permanent disaffection between the two groups.


If immigrants were to continue to assimilate at the rate and to the degree of past immigrants, then we need not deal with the touchy subject of assimilation, but if they were not to, then it will be necessary, though distasteful, for us to think about assimilation of immigrants—what amount of assimilation we desire or think is necessary or fair, and how to ensure that that happens.  I would suggest that to have immigrants “assimilate” in the following ways could constitute an appropriate expectation (necessary for the preservation of present culture):

1. having sufficient competence in English to carry out basic social and business transactions

2. believing that representative government is the most desirable form of government (so that citizens have the power to alter government by altering who those representatives are)

3. having no desire to have a working alliance between a religion and the government

4. believing that all persons should be free to practice any religion of their choice as long as it does not disadvantage others

5. being willing to consider letting go (though not necessarily having to) of some daily habits of dress and action that are troubling to persons of the dominant culture

6. believing that all persons are basically equal in value and that no person should be made inferior to others on the basis of gender, age, looks, beliefs, or background

7. acknowledging that the rule of law, rather than personal loyalties, should govern behaviors that representative government determines to be prohibited


The absence of any of these assumptions/beliefs will seriously weaken the current structure of our society.  Not having a common language for easy communication among all citizens makes carrying out daily routines and common purposes difficult.  Preferring monarchy or theocracy to democracy will certainly lead to serious conflict and perhaps to constitutional change, if the numbers of such persons grows.  Religious intolerance would lead to open conflict and underground religions.  Clinging strongly to familiar symbolic appearance and habits (clothing, head covering, method of praying, etc.) is taken by many in the dominant culture as a rejection of assimilation and raises questions of loyalties and conformity.  Believing that women, for example, are inferior would slow down our society’s slow march toward equality for all.  Preferring bribery or personal loyalties over law will hinder trust and equality in society.


Assimilation is a difficult subject for Americans, since most of us believe that everyone should have the freedom to think and act as they wish, but we must consider that this ethic may be workable only if most citizens are actually similar to each other in some important ways.  For comfortable daily interactions among citizens, there must be some conformity to various ways of doing things and ways of communicating, and it seems reasonable that this is true of beliefs as well.  Consider what might happen if one-third of people residing in this country wanted a theocracy (rule by religious leaders) rather than a secular democracy.  There are already people with this belief among our citizens (even citizens of European background), and the percentage among economic immigrants could be even higher.  The Constitution would not be changed until those favoring theocracy were in the majority, but there would be great conflict, some of it perhaps violent, because, just as with the moral objections of some to abortion, believers will claim that their orders come from God and simply can’t be compromised or ignored.  Of course, necessary assimilation should be kept to the minimum necessary for having a relatively unified country, but there is a minimum that is necessary to prevent major social disruption.


Some readers may idealistically think that they are willing to abandon this minimum similarity among citizens in favor of greater freedom and letting things take their course in society—changing our form of government or adopting a state religion, for example, if that is what a majority wants.  I assume that most current citizens do not take this view, but many probably hold this as an ideal even though they would be very unhappy if any of these major changes should actually occur due to large changes in the composition of society.  If you believe that assimilation is unimportant, think seriously about how you would feel if these kinds of changes were to take place due to greater cultural differences in society as a result of immigration, and if you think assimilation is important, consider what you would want to do about it if the degree of assimilation of immigrants were to significantly diminish.


The rationale of some for rejecting considering a necessary degree of assimilation is that “it [such major changes] could never happen here,” but if we believe in “one person, one vote,” then it certainly could happen if a majority of citizens of a mixed-culture society wanted it to.


Some make an automatic assumption that concerns about immigration or assimilation imply xenophobia, but this is not true.  As a psychologist, I am simply pointing out that large differences between large groups of persons in a society lead inevitably to fear, rejection, and conflict.  This will not change through good intentions or a naive assumption that persons who are significantly different can live side by side with no problems because of those differences.  Persons who advocate for truly open borders might alter their positions if they considered seriously how their own lives and country could be changed by larger numbers of immigrants together with less assimilation.


Please note that I am not speaking against immigration but only asking that we be clear on what degree of change we as current citizens would wish to accept in our society as a result of immigration.  If the past pattern of inevitable assimilation holds true, then we will not be forced to think about this, but if current and future immigrants are culturally more different from our current society than were past immigrants, and if there is a growing amount of enclaving by immigrants, then we would do well to begin to consider what current citizens wish to preserve about their way of life and how to do this.

At this point, some readers may call the above “fear mongering,” as is engaged in by our current President, but I am only raising the question of the impact on our society of greater numbers of immigrants who do not assimilate as immigrants have in the past.  One source of control in this area would be to keep the percentage of recent immigrants at a certain low level, which would promote assimilation, and we would not have to go through the stressful process of considering what makes this country the country that it is.  Our society is not what it is by chance but because a number of landowners in the American colonies in the 1700’s wanted to be free of the control, idiosyncracies, and inconsistencies of monarchs and utilized the political philosophies of some previous thinkers (John Locke, for example) to construct the government we now have.  There is no guarantee that this form of government will survive all challenges to it.  In fact, the current populist movements around the world are trending right now to more authoritarian arrangements.



1. We could study and construct a rationale for the number of both refugee and economic immigrants that we can absorb each year without creating immigrant enclaves and without creating cultural challenges to our current system of government.  This could involve discussion of a minimum level of assimilation needed, as illustrated in the elements suggested above.   Our Congress should take the lead in doing this.  (The more successful we are at achieving this minimum level of assimilation, the more immigrants we could absorb.)


2. We could make clear to potential immigrants, at all of our embassies and consulates around the world and by means of the internet, the minimum assimilation expected.  This could be communicated in bedrock detail, including how parents may feel about their children adopting aspects of the new culture.


The communication of these values and of our expectation that immigrants will share these basic values with us is not “forcing” them to have these values.  It is to make clear that they may not like being in this country if they are significantly opposed to these values, and that many citizens will not take kindly to their opposition to these fundamental values.


3.  Create classes and counseling to help all new immigrants adjust to change.  This would also hopefully generate involvement of citizens in every local community who wish to offer assistance and encouragement with the integration of new immigrants (job information, language tutoring, social customs tutoring, invitations to dinner, etc.).


4. Require all immigrants to seek (not necessarily achieve) citizenship.  If we do not do this, we are purposely creating a class of persons in the country who we assume are permanent residents but from whom we do not expect the same degree of loyalty and contributions.  Why would we wish to have this separate class of resident?  Why would we not expect immigrants to want to be and to be full citizens of the country they have chosen as their home?  A country is not simply a resource to any who happen to be within its borders but a group entity that requires considerable work and interactive effort on the part of citizens to maintain and to thrive.  (The U.S. should make its process for people becoming citizens quicker, just as it should triple the current number of officials at the Mexican border who process asylum claims.)

5. Congress must take up the immigration issue and find the most appropriate compromises in this regard soon.  We know that compromise will be necessary and will be painful for some, but it must be done.  There will no doubt be need for such Congressional action again at different points in the future.

Once again, this country has not needed to attend directly to assimilation issues so far in its history, since assimilation occurred naturally for enough immigrants to keep the country on its chosen course (the current Constitution), but the world seems to be reaching a point of so much immigration, due to increased wealth and increased transportation, that large immigrant groups can now exist permanently in a country with little assimilation, and we must decide whether this is good for any nation.  Many readers will feel some discomfort with the above ideas and suggestions, but we must decide how important assimilation is for the long-term good of our country.