Authors: Fariborz Ghadar
Korean immigrants have been successful as entrepreneurs and small business owners in the United States thanks to a centuries-old underground money-lending system known as
. Kye (pronounced “keh”) allows individuals within the Korean community to borrow money, regardless of their ability to access traditional bank loans. In kye, people join together and contribute money, usually ranging from $200 to $500 a month, into a communal pot, with the total money being dispersed to those who need it most on a rotating basis; the monthly kitty can reach several thousand dollars. Kye allows Koreans to access startup capital quickly and is considered by many to be at the heart of Koreans’ entrepreneurial success in the United States. Trust and social pressure are two of the backbones of kye, as there are no official documents that members sign to engage in the program. Usually members are familiar with one another, either from church or other means, fostering honesty and security in the lending system.
Unlike at the turn of the century, though, the invisible walls of these neighborhoods keeping immigrants in and Americans out have largely disappeared. The process of throwing off legal segregation in the United States lasted through much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when civil rights demonstrations resulted in public opinion turning against enforced segregation. Regardless, de facto segregation persists in varying degrees today. The contemporary racial segregation seen in America in residential neighborhoods has been shaped by public policies, mortgage discrimination, and redlining, among other things.
Rejecting the movement toward integration of the 1960s, black power activist Malcolm X considered himself a black man of African decent, who had the misfortune of being an American citizen. As he once declared: “Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.”
Malcolm X didn’t realize he had embraced something that was at that time possible only in America: the reinvention of one’s life story. Caste and class rules in the rest of the world keep people in their places. But America has singularly allowed many the opportunity to recast themselves on their own terms, reframe their successes and failures, and have second, or even third, acts.
My own career trajectory goes from working with a fellow Iranian in Boston, Massachusetts, renovating and managing properties, to starting The Computer Emporium with an Egyptian, Canadian, and an American, to now sitting on the Board of Directors of Westfield Insurance in Ohio and Nason Medical Centers in South Carolina and becoming accepted by the “good old boy network.”
As many immigrants have proven, it is possible to remain in your ethnic enclave and carve out a small place for yourself. However, this is not the picture that the American Dream outlines. The more difficult path is the one the vast majority strives for—that of successful assimilation. You cannot do this unless you eventually venture out of the small, safe haven that the immigrant community provides. To become American, you must assimilate.
Assimilation Is Critical
hen people think of the culturally diverse United States, the idea of a melting pot has historically come to mind. After all, it is a nation born of immigrants and founded on notions of equality and freedom for every person. Recently, however, people have begun to question this analogy, endeavoring to establish a new association: the salad bowl. Some argue that the United States is no longer made up of a number of cultures blended together to create one unique culture, and it is instead made up of a number of distinct cultures unified purely by laws and government. And with the debate over immigration reform already underway, whether immigrants actually assimilate has been a major point of contention.
Many conservatives argue that the new wave of immigrants makes little to no effort to become a part of American culture, favoring instead their own heritage and cultural roots. Others, though, assert that today’s immigrants are just as integrated as in prior years. These people point to studies that show second-generation immigrants tend to supersede their parents socioeconomically, continue to remain enthusiastic about the United States’ potential success, and identify as being American by the third generation.
Yet how does one really determine how integrated an immigrant is into American culture? The concept of assimilation is complicated and multidimensional, as it is inherently wrapped up in “questions of identity, belonging, and the very essence of being American,” as explained by an article published by the
Christian Science Monitor
Moreover, because assimilation must be measured over a period of time, it is difficult to assess the degree to which the new wave of immigrants have assimilated—which is precisely the group of people that would be most affected by a conceivable immigration reform.
Those are not the only barriers people face, however, when attempting to determine whether immigrants have assimilated into the United States. Conditions of immigrants’ integration may not be the same today as they were in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as questions of the effects of race and discrimination have been brought to the forefront. When Congress passed the Nationality Act of 1965, it opened the doors to a wave of new immigrants, including Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians, who had previously been denied access by an immigration quota system that favored northern Europeans.
Because of this, the immigrant population—which hovers around forty million, according to the 2010 U.S. Census—is incredibly diverse.
This inherently makes determining the rate of assimilation even more challenging. As explained by the Migration Information Source,
One of the most difficult tasks in gauging group differences in the completeness of assimilation involves figuring out how much race and ethnicity—rather than other factors—affect economic mobility. Immigrants who become “racialized” and are treated as disadvantaged racial or ethnic minorities may find their pathways to economic mobility and assimilation blocked because of racial/ethnic discrimination.
Though early Irish and Italian immigrants were initially discriminated against as inferior races, they were eventually seen as white by the sheer fact that their skin color was not black. Academics, however, are still debating whether Latin Americans and Asian Americans, who make up the majority of the new wave of immigrants, will be considered “white.” More specifically, as reported by the
Christian Science Monitor
, “Today, census data show, 12 million immigrants come from Mexico and 10 million hail from South and East Asia. Almost 4 million come from the Caribbean, while 14.5 million come from Central America, South America, the Middle East, and elsewhere.”
As such, many are currently unsure of the impact discrimination has on new immigrants’ ability to assimilate.
Despite these difficulties, studies have been conducted to ascertain the degree to which immigrants have assimilated. With the help of the Manhattan Institute of Policy Research, Jacob Vigdor, a public policy professor at Duke University, used Census data beginning in 1900 to track the assimilation progress of immigrants. Through creating an index that calculated the statistical difference between native-born Americans and immigrants, Vigdor was able to measure assimilation in three categories: civil, cultural, and economic. According to his findings, Latin Americans have the most difficult time assimilating, especially civically and economically. On a whole, however, people who came to the United States are more integrated than those who ended up in European countries, but less so than those in Canada. Other studies have reportedly found that some Latin Americans have experienced assimilation difficulties. As told by a
New York Times
article, “A 2002 study [by the Public Policy Institute of California], for instance, reported that despite ‘improvements in human capital and earnings’ for second-generation Mexican immigrants, the third generation still ‘trails the education and earnings of the average American,’ and shows little sign of catching up.”
This potentially could be the result of the economic status of many Mexicans while immigrating. Because many come from poverty, they often settle in communities plagued by insufficient schools and limited job growth, thereby inhibiting their ability for upward mobility.
Other studies, such as the ones recently completed by the Pew Research Center, have found that second-generation Hispanics, along with Asian American second-generation immigrants, are generally more integrated than their parents. As reported by the
Christian Science Monitor
, both groups outperform their parents economically, have friends and family of different ethnicities, and are “twice as likely to say they consider themselves to be a ‘typical American.’”
Additionally, more so than the general public, they value hard work, strive for career success, and are optimistic about the future of the United States. About 90 percent of second-generation Hispanics and Asian Americans also say they have the ability to speak English at least “well.”
Not all studies, however, have reported positive results overall. For example, results from a recent Hudson Institute study, which used data from a Harris Interactive survey, “led the researchers to conclude that ‘America’s patriotic assimilation system is broken.’”
Whereas 81 percent of native-born citizens believe schools should focus on American citizenship rather than on ethnic pride, only 50 percent of foreign-born citizens support this. The study also found that 85 percent of native-born citizens consider themselves to be American citizens over “citizens of the world,” compared with 54 percent of the foreign-born population. In an age of increased globalization, however, viewing oneself as a citizen of the world may potentially be beneficial. Though some argue it decreases one’s likelihood of holding allegiance to a particular nation, thinking globally does not necessarily equate to abandonment of patriotism. Rather, it recognizes that there has been a shift in how different countries increasingly interact with one another. This gives people who view themselves as global citizens an advantage because they recognize their ability to perform in the global market and to be export oriented, allowing for the possibility of future job growth as well. As explained in an article on
Inside Higher Ed
, “On a practical level, global citizenship provides a concept that can create bridges between the work of internationalization and multicultural education. Although these efforts have different histories and trajectories, they also share important goals of cultural empathy and intercultural competence.”
Yet in the Hudson Institute study, there was also a difference in twenty-three percentage points in the belief that English comprehension is “very important for the future of the American political system.”
Based on these findings, among other reported statistics, researchers determined that an extensive “patriotic gap” exists in America between the native-born and foreign-born populations.
These results have led people to question whether the United States is doing enough to help immigrants integrate into their new communities. A
New York Times
article published in 2012 reported, “This year, the Department of Homeland Security plans to spend a measly $18 million—far less than a tenth of 1 percent of its budget—on helping immigrants assimilate. Meanwhile, states with large immigrant populations are cutting the budgets of community and state colleges, precisely where immigrant students predominantly enroll.”
Not only do immigrants often feel a lack of support from the government, but they also face issues from the general public.
“Nativists take the position that they don’t want any immigrants at all—they want to build fences,” [Alejandro] Portes [who developed the theory of “segmented assimilation” in the 1990s] says. “The other position is to turn [immigrants] into Americans as quickly as possible—this is forced assimilation. . . . The problem is that the first generation cannot be turned into Americans instantly. And the attempt to do so is often counterproductive. It creates fear and alienation, it denigrates the culture and language of immigrants themselves, and it denigrates it to their kids.”
This in turn can lead to the potential for “downward assimilation,” which is when immigrants find solace in gang culture. Though one may think those who immigrate to the United States as refugees receive an abundance of aid, in fact, it, too, is rather limited. According to the
Christian Science Monitor
, refugees receive “about seven months of cash assistance and help in connecting to a job, housing, and most of the public benefits available to US citizens.” Yet these people, especially the children, are often already troubled and need the most help in finding footing in a completely new cultural arena.