By Mark A. Grey
Mark Grey is a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration. He is also lead author of Postville USA: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America.
Millions of immigrants begin their new American lives in cities. Since the 19th century, immigrants have propelled the rapid growth both of American coastal cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, and their interior counterparts, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City. For most immigrants, settling in large cities allows them to build enclaves with fellow newcomers who speak the same language, enjoy similar customs and practice the same religion. These enclaves have often been located near jobs that attracted immigrants. For example, large neighborhoods of Poles, Czechs and other Eastern Europeans grew around the great meat-packing factories of Chicago and Kansas City. The urban nature of American immigration is still felt in many cities where one can visit legacy ethnic neighborhoods with names like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy.”
Although immigrants by the thousands still settle in large cities like Los Angeles, a growing number of immigrants instead choose smaller U.S. cities, suburbs and rural communities. In general, these new settlement patterns reflect the availability of jobs, but they also reflect the availability of affordable housing and good schools. Growing immigrant populations are often found where older Americans are retiring from the work force and younger ones are departing, often for large coastal cities.
Immigration to smaller U.S. cities and rural areas is bringing new population and economic and cultural renewal to many regions of the country. But it also brings challenges for both the newcomers and established residents. One metaphor that is often used to describe the United States is the “Great Melting Pot.” This refers to the fusing of many different cultures, languages and religions to form one national identity. However, the “melting pot” notion is too simple. The process of transforming a country of many immigrants into a nation has often been slow and complex. Indeed, many American immigrant communities worked, lived and married exclusively among their fellow immigrants for decades. Most immigrant enclaves have eventually faded as distinguishable ethnic neighborhoods only through changes in the economy, increased usage of the English language and a growing number of marriages outside the ethnic enclave.
When many people talk about immigration they use the word “assimilation” to describe how previous generations of newcomers became part of American society and thus played their part in the “melting pot.” But the term “assimilation” often misleads. First, it assumes that many of our immigrant ancestors quickly and willingly changed their cultural practices and spoke English. In fact history shows us that many immigrant communities remained distinct for generations. Secondly, insisting on the assimilation of newcomers assumes that their integration is a one-way process in which only the newcomers make changes in lifestyle, cultural practices and language. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Integration of immigrants to the United States is a vibrant, dynamic process that involves not just immigrants but receiving communities, public institutions and private organizations. It is true that newcomers must learn English, and come to understand American lifestyles and cultural practices, and must find jobs. These adjustments can be very difficult and can take several years, if not decades, particularly for those who lack job skills readily transferred to U.S. workplaces and for whom learning English is difficult. These newcomers often find themselves with less desirable jobs earning relatively low wages.
Established residents and their institutions also are responsible for integrating immigrants. “Accommodation” is probably the best way to describe the give-and-take. Schools, for example, provide interpreters to communicate with newcomer parents. Hospitals and clinics provide signage that reflects lower literacy rates among newcomers as well as interpretation services. Law enforcement officials learn about newcomer populations through cultural competency training. Individual citizens also help by tutoring newcomers in English and orienting them to local resources. A growing number of U.S. workplaces make reasonable accommodations for newcomers’ religious needs as long as safety is not compromised. One example is allowing Muslim women to wear head coverings in factories, as long as the head coverings fit underneath her hardhat and other protective gear.
Recognizing and managing expectations on the part of newcomers and citizens alike also is important. Immigrants soon learn the streets are not “paved with gold.” Learning to live and work in the United States requires a great deal of persistence. Patience is also required of American citizens. Immigrant newcomers cannot be expected to learn English overnight or “assimilate” and adopt American customs and lifestyles in a few short weeks. Immigrants are certainly transformed by settling in the United States, but their new communities are transformed as well.
Debates and social tension about immigration in the United States often reflect unrealistic expectations that newcomers will swiftly learn and speak English. These expectations often underestimate how long it takes to learn English, especially for adults. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often expressed with complaints about immigrants who “refuse to learn English” or about bilingual signs in stores and hospitals. These frustrations sometimes lead to adoption of laws making English the official language of some communities and states. This debate has come and gone for generations.
More recent controversies focus on the presence of illegal immigrants. Estimates vary, but the general consensus is that about 10 million immigrants living in the United States today either entered the country illegally or overstayed the ascribed length of time for their visit. Anger over illegal immigration is often associated with U.S. citizens’ perceptions that immigrants compete for jobs needed by Americans, contribute to rising crime rates and use limited public services like schools and hospitals. Research on these topics is often inconclusive, but when many Americans believe illegal immigrants are responsible for declines in their quality of life or that immigrants take more than they give, the frustration expresses itself in a variety of ways. Many Americans are frustrated that Congress has not passed comprehensive immigration laws to address illegal immigration.
Absent congressional action to address illegal immigration, a growing number of states and cities are enacting their own laws. For example, some communities have made it illegal to rent houses and apartments to immigrants who lack formal proof of their legal immigration status. Some states have made it impossible for an illegal immigrant to get a driver’s license. Some places even ban publicly funded health care for illegal immigrants and their children except in emergencies.
Recently, the state of Arizona required law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect might be in the United States illegally. A U.S. federal court struck down one provision of this law. Litigation continues, as does the national debate about immigration.
Despite these social and political tensions, debate — and rancor — about immigration are neither new nor impossible to work through. Similar debates have come and gone throughout U.S. history. They usually reflected broad changes in the economy and job markets. At times descendants of earlier immigrants sought to restrict immigration of new populations. For example, laws that restricted immigration from China and Ireland were often instigated at the federal and local level by “natives” who themselves were the children or grandchildren of immigrants. This so-called “nativist” sentiment has crested several times in U.S. history, and yet integration prevailed in the end — although the process was often challenging for newcomers and natives alike.
Over the course of U.S. history, immigrants’ countries of origin have changed along with the languages, customs and cultures they bring. Today’s immigrants face the same challenges as earlier newcomers in adapting to U.S. society and culture. And some U.S. citizens evince the same negative attitudes toward immigrants that their own immigrant ancestors encountered. Yet despite the reciprocal challenges of adaptation and integration, immigrants continue to seek better lives in the United States, and U.S. society continues to be transformed.