Immigration and Assimilation

By Mike Koetting

February 5, 2018

The last two posts have raised questions about the American vision.  Then government was shut down because the Republicans were so opposed to letting the Dreamers stay in America.  (Or, if you prefer, because Democrats were so committed to insuring the Dreamers get to stay.)  All of which got me wondering:  how should a country think about immigration?  Obviously, this is a more complicated topic than a single post.  This post will explore just one facet of the issue—assimilation., which I think is at the ideological core of the discussion.

To be honest, I was surprised at the how many immigrants there are in the United States.  In 2016 it reached an all-time high, almost 44 million (the orange line and left axis in the below graph).  As a share of the population (blue line, right axis) immigrants account for about 13.5% of the current American population.  This is a high-water mark for the last 100 years.  It was just under 15% from 1870 to 1915, then moved steadily downward, bottoming out at about 5% in the Sixties.  I did not realize it has grown so much

Immigrant Percent

Source:  Migration Policy Institute

I recognize that a country should not accept an unlimited number of immigrants.  I don’t know what that number should be—although it’s an important question—but one of the relevant questions is how can it assimilate the newcomers.

Assimilation is crucial.  I believe in unum e pluribus.  This doesn’t mean the Irish have to stop celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the Muslims can’t fast for Ramadan, African Americans must give up Kwanza, or orthodox Jews have to dress like everyone else.  But nations must have something at the core, something in common that holds the nation together when everything else goes to hell.  All members of the society need to be assimilated into that.  Some are assumed to get there by reason of being raised in the country, others through conscious effort at a later time.

There are probably a lot of ideas about what it is at the core of America that makes it a more or less coherent society, but there seems to be some commonality.  Martha Minow, former Dean of the Harvard Law School, says:

Ours is a nation founded on a set of civic ideals, not on an ethnicity, not even on a common history….What holds us together as Americans is a commitment to recognition of the worth and dignity of each individual, regardless of identity or background, and to equality under the law.

From the other end of the political perspective, Stanley Kurtz, in a National Review article, says:

Liberty and equality, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in our constitutional system, are the glue that binds Americans together, regardless of race or ethnicity

Despite apparent agreement on the core values across the political spectrum, there is some friction around the topic of assimilation.  Right wing Americans have argued that the left is openly “anti-assimilation”.  The above quote from Kurtz is the beginning of a tirade attacking the left for allegedly declaring war on assimilation.  (

The argument from the Right seems to have two major complaints:

  • The Left is too apologetic for certain elements of American history where it believes attempts at assimilation overshot the mark.
  • The Left’s dedication to honoring diversity is an implicit attack on the notion of assimilation.

Both arguments strike me as inapplicable in this context.  I can’t imagine an honest history of America that doesn’t acknowledge that certain activities undertaken in the name of “assimilation” were outright violations of ideas of liberty and equality.  No nation gets this all right and America has sins in its past, several truly grievous.  Honest admission of those hardly constitutes a rejection of the idea that there is a core set of ideals undergirding our democracy.  Indeed, honest accounting reasserts the primacy of the ideals, even if not always achieved.  Conversely, whitewashing the deviations—or, worse yet, glorifying them—weakens the idea of a core set of values built around human dignity and freedom.

In a similar vein, acknowledging the diversity of American society is far removed from questioning the core American vision of freedom and equality.  At its most obvious, it simply recognizes the manifest fact that America accommodates many different kinds of people—as long as they commit to the core values.  Or, it may be a celebration of the fact that, for all its shortcomings, America has done an extraordinarily good job of this, and, if there is American exceptionalism, our ability to assimilate may be the key.

To be sure, there are people whose arguments about American historical culpability go so far as to undercut the ability to maintain a common value structure.  And there are some people whose absorption in certain life styles leads them to overgeneralize the problems of more traditional styles.  But these are the fringes.  We need to pay attention to them—who knows?  Today’s fringe may be tomorrow’s President.  But it should not drive our handling of what is already a very difficult issue.

Among the things that makes it difficult is our inability or unwillingness to realize the extent to which certain prejudices color our view of the world, even if we are reluctant to admit it.  About a month ago I was in a restaurant and an extended family, obviously Muslim, sat at the table next to us.  The first impulse bubbling up was: “If you want to wear hijabs, why did you come to America?”  But I was instantly ashamed.  The answer is obvious.  They are here because they can wear hijabs and still subscribe to the ideas of liberty and equality as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.  That’s a big part of why immigrants come.  In that sense, most are already assimilated to the most important ideas of the country.

They may need to learn cultural idiosyncrasies, the specifics of our democratic mechanisms, perhaps new ways to support themselves, and possibly even a new language.  I do think learning English is crucial.  But living in Chicago you see how quickly it can happen.  You can’t walk down the street without hearing people speaking in one language, then switching to English.   English is the fourth language for the woman who cuts my hair.  Sometimes I have to work a little to understand her, but it’s worth it for the insights she gives me about other cultures that I would never otherwise get.  And her two sons, one in college, one about to go, are so thoroughly American that their exploits are sometimes a source of mutual chagrin.  But I find little to worry about when it comes to understanding that the core value is the dignity and freedom of each individual.

It seems to me from reading arguments that the left is anti-assimilationist, that what is being lamented is the loss of a white, patriarchal, heterosexual, Christian society.  The overt assertion that these ideas are not inherently superior and need not be the norm against which assimilation into American society is measured is what the Right is calling “anti-assimilationist.”

All this suggests to me that these critics are looking at the world through the entirely wrong end of the telescope.  If there is a want of assimilation into the ultimately uniting idea of America, it is not from immigrants who come here precisely because of those values, but from nativists who seem not to have internalized the idea that “…what holds us together as Americans is a commitment to recognition of the worth and dignity of each individual.”

What is it Pogo said long ago? “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

3 thoughts on “Immigration and Assimilation”

  1. I agree with your reflections, Michael — but not with Minow’s or Kurtz’s definition of what the USA is about: individual liberty and equality. This seems to me shockingly narrow. The Big Idea of the United States in a time of monarchies was a population of diverse individuals coming together to achieve Self-Governance. W00-hoo! The whole project of creating and evolving a complex self-governing republic was hugely exciting — and still is. Yes, the Enlightenment idea of the dignity of the individual was central in our founding documents but so was the context holding that value: concern for the whole being created, for the well-being and equality of all citizens. Because of the mechanistic worldview of the 18th century (with us still), the Founding Fathers tended to think in terms of building a mechanism of self-governance with weights and pulleys (checks and balances) and also tended to think of their creation as a done deal. John Adams said (something like), “I do government so that my sons can do business so that my grandsons can make art.” The new system was something to be set up and moved on from to other concerns. How much truer to nature if we had had an organic sense of our Grand Civic Experiment continually evolving to absorb new elements of democratic possibilities. Each generation would have striven to contribute to this development. If the Grand Collective Experiment in securing the commonweal through democratic institutions (rather than a narrow focus on the individual, as if each individual were not embedded in myriad relationships) were our frame of reference, we could focus more effectively on correcting the many ways the common good has been damaged by, for instance, undemocratic concentrations of power (via undemocratic concentrations of wealth). We need a focus on what American life is like now because of the state of our institutions and, within that, a focus on what American life is like for particular groups (not sacrificing one group for another, as you pointed out in earlier posts). But we need to invite them and everyone here to be part of Our Grand Ongoing Project to figure out how to make our self-governing republic work in the best ways possible. All in!


    1. This is a useful comment. I disagree with some of the specifics, but what it suggests is crucially important. First, I think a reasonable argument can be made that the Founders did not see their enterprise as a “finished” deal. (See, for instance, Joseph Ellis’ “The Quartet”.) Second, I am inclined to think that Minow and Kurtz come to their views of the centrality of the individual because I think that IS the quintessential American value. To be sure, self-governance was a remarkable thing in that time; we don’t value anywhere near highly enough how large was the leap from was otherwise in existence. But its fundamental building block was the individual. That the American vision was NOT built on a more explicit idea of the Grand Collective Experiment is one of the several flaws in the creation. I absolutely agree that if we were more focused on securing the commonweal, we would be better off. Indeed, as suggested, the failure to make this approach is the most salient cause of our current malaise. Several other correspondents have made some version of this point: vesting too much emphasis on the individual works to some degree against a notion of collective good. But the point of my post was not to lament that we had the founding principles only partially right, but to point out that immigrants were in as much as the rest of us. On the other hand, I don’t doubt that the only way out from our current morass to find some concept of Grand Collective Action and get everyone in.


      1. I suppose I’m somewhat of a grinch re the liberty-loving Founding Fathers since they LEFT WOMEN OUT of just about everything in the new public sphere. Some purity of principles! Abigail Adams’ “Remember the ladies!” letter to John holds up well and is still inspiring to read.


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