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How Donald Trump is making it harder for immigrants to integrate into America

He gets assimilation dangerously wrong. Win or lose, it’s a message his followers will take to heart.

A board member of a mosque in Pomona, CA, surveys damage done by vandals in 2005.
A board member of a mosque in Pomona, California, surveys damage done by vandals in 2005.
Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times via Getty

There are some things you can’t undo. Donald Trump’s impact on America — its norms of both politics and everyday life — will outlast the 2016 presidential election whether or not he wins.

This became very clear when he talked about his fear of certain kinds of immigrants not “assimilating” properly in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

Trump is giving voice to the fears of many white Americans — opinions they feel they can no longer safely express in public because they’re not “politically correct.” He’s not necessarily putting ideas into the heads of his followers, but as he’s the presumptive nominee for one of the two major parties, they see what he’s doing as brave.

Arguably, then, the most dangerous things Trump says are the ones that carry implications not just for the US government but for how Americans should behave in their own communities.

If Donald Trump loses the presidential election, it won’t necessarily matter much that he called for the US to temporarily ban Muslim immigration into the country. But it will matter that he told millions of Americans, over and over again, that Muslim Americans need to assimilate into American society — and that they aren’t doing it.

Hidayah Martinez Jaka attends a speech by Martin O'Malley outside a Virginia mosque in 2015.
O rly?
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Trump isn't just advancing a proposed policy “solution" to the nonexistent problem of America having Muslims in it. He’s advancing a particular notion of how long-resident, unhyphenated “Americans” ought to think about and react to Muslim and Latino immigrants (and their descendants!) in their midst — one that pushes the zero-sum ideal of “assimilation” over the more welcoming (and more successful) ideal of integration.

His worldview importantly rests on racist ideas about who can and can’t successfully assimilate, and he ignores the downsides and dangers of assimilating into a society that will never treat you as fully equal anyway.

The way Trump presents it, assimilation is a choice that immigrants have to make. But in reality, integration is, as much as anything, a choice that resident Americans make. And he’s telling his followers that it’s okay for them not to make that choice.

What Donald Trump is saying

Trump unfurled his theory of assimilation in full after the Orlando shooting, conducted by a second-generation Afghan American. After a speech in which the need (and refusal) of Muslim Americans to assimilate was the persistent subtext, he went on Sean Hannity’s show and made that subtext text:

Hannity: If you grow up under Sharia law, and as a man, you think you have the right to tell a woman how to dress, whether she can drive a car, whether she can go to school, or whether she can go to work … if you grow up there, you want to come to America, how do we vet somebody’s heart and ascertain if they're coming here for freedom or if they want to proselytize, indoctrinate, and bring the theocracy with them?

Trump: Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost, I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation — for some reason there’s no real assimilation.

Hannity: Right.

Trump: And you see it all over the place. … I’m not even talking about assimilation. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about there is a percentage of people that want to do what this maniac did in Orlando. There’s a percentage of people. That percentage becomes — the number of people becomes more and more as we take in thousands and thousands of more people. There’s a hate that’s going on that’s unbelievable.

Trump says he’s “not even talking about assimilation," but, of course, that is exactly what he is talking about. He’s drawing a connection between an immigrant community retaining the outward trappings of its culture — the sort of difference that can be seen from the outside — and its members’ attitudes toward America in their hearts.

By doing so, he’s offering his followers a rubric. Immigrants are supposed to not just integrate — to adopt American culture — but assimilate: to abandon their heritage as rapidly as possible. If they don't, Americans ought to assume they’re choosing to not be American and treat them accordingly.

Immigrants assimilate. It’s what they do.

What Donald Trump is saying is neither new, nor true. You know this already.

It’s not new: People have been expressing fears that immigrants’ religions make it impossible for them to adopt American values since the immigrants were Irish and German and the religion was Catholicism. (This kind of parallel is often used carelessly, but in this case it's absolutely fair: Instead of being concerned that immigrants were more loyal to “Sharia law” than the Constitution, 19th-century nativists worried they’d put the pope’s authority over that of the US government.)

Then they were concerned that Southern and Eastern European immigrants, by virtue of their greater cultural difference from Western Europe, were unassimilable. Then Asians. The list goes on.

And it's not true: For as long as those fears have been getting expressed, the children of immigrants have learned English — and their children, the third generation, have often spoken only English. (That’s as true now with Latino immigrants as ever.) The children of immigrants have become better educated than their parents. Most importantly, they’ve identified as Americans first — they’ve often dropped the “hyphenated” identities entirely.

irish immigrants 1800s

Even if you don’t know the details, you know this story. It's integral to the way America makes sense of itself — and it’s why, by saying that people who've been in America their whole lives aren’t fully American, Donald Trump is turning his back on one of the country’s noblest ideals.

But if Trump's story were simply untrue, it would, in some ways, be better. He could lose the presidential election — hell, he could win the presidential election — and in the long run it wouldn’t matter: He wouldn’t be able to stop the inexorable march of immigrant communities toward Americanization.

The problem is this: There’s no one “America” to assimilate into. What “America" you get depends in part on where you fit into existing American racial hierarchies and inequities. The immigrants on whom the most pressure is placed to assimilate are the ones, often, for whom assimilation poses the least appealing choice.

“Downward assimilation”: when assimilation meets racial inequality

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences published a major report on immigrant integration into the United States. It found that, as always, immigrant populations are integrating just fine. But that wasn’t always a good thing.

The children and grandchildren of immigrants resemble every other American. They earn more than their parents, know more English, are better educated. But they commit more crime, are more likely to be obese, and are more likely to raise their children in single-parent households.

Donald Trump, ironically, gets this — or at least, he’s said that among Muslim Americans “assimilation has not exactly been a positive factor,” though it's not clear exactly what he’s referring to. Part of this paradox is resolved by another finding of the NAS report: There was a difference in what immigrants were assimilating to.

“Although the U.S.-born descendants of black immigrants do achieve labor market integration, it is into the racialized space occupied by African Americans in U.S. society rather than into the non-Hispanic white mainstream,” the report suggested. “The possibility of socioeconomic stagnation for Mexicans after the second generation,” meanwhile, “could be interpreted as assimilation into the disadvantaged minority position of U.S. Hispanics.”

The same was true of family structure. Both immigrants who integrated into “Hispanic”-ness and those who integrated into blackness had much, much higher rates of single-parent households than their European and Asian counterparts — and than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

The problem with the shiny, happy, teleological narrative of “immigrants assimilate,” in other words, is that it really only works for the immigrants we currently consider white.

A young Somali American outside a hookah bar in Minneapolis.
A young Somali American outside a hookah bar in Minneapolis.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty

They haven't always been white — that’s the point. (And in fact, there’s some countervailing evidence that, at least economically, immigrants didn't move up the ladder all that quickly when they came from countries that weren’t considered “white” at the time.) But they're considered white now.

Some scholars have even argued (though I think they’re not quite right) that the immigrant groups of the previous generation have only been able to fully assimilate into America by oppressing whoever was below them on the ladder of Americanness — and usually that was African Americans.

Because there simply wasn’t massive permanent (voluntary) settlement of non-European immigrant groups before 1965, it’s hard to generalize about how this works for immigrants from the rest of the world. That question is at the root of much of the debate about the status of Asians in America now, and the debate about whether Latinos will “become white” in the future — each side in those debates has a different idea of how powerful the “assimilation into whiteness” is for nonblack Americans.

For many of those immigrants, though — particularly immigrants from Africa and the black Caribbean (and, to a lesser extent, newer immigrants from Latin America as well) — immigrants aren’t arriving into a vacuum. They’re arriving into a US that already has racial labels ready for them (black and Hispanic, respectively). And as the NAS report showed, that matters a great deal.

It’s hard to understand why a second-generation immigrant would choose to assimilate into such a society: Who would want to assimilate into racism?

It’s easy to understand why he might look for some sort of alternative. It isn't a coincidence that the immigrant group that's drawn the most attention for “radicalization” among youth is the Somali-American population — a Muslim population with the option of assimilating into blackness.

Whatever problem the Somali-American population has with radicalization is dwarfed by the problem it has with gang violence. That’s surely assimilation; it’s just not the assimilation Donald Trump has in mind.

Demanding “assimilation” of immigrants is the problem

The question of “segmented” integration is one of those mysteries whose solution is contained in its premise. If integration were as simple as people choosing to integrate or not, we wouldn't have racial inequality to begin with — there would be no segments for immigrants to integrate into.

Over the past couple of decades, researchers of immigration have started stressing something that seems obvious once you think about it: how well immigrants succeed depends on how they’re treated by those already here. (The technical term for this is “receiving context.”) It’s current residents who have the power to shape immigrants’ options where integration is concerned.

Some immigrants have always been seen as less Americanizable than others. When nativists were wringing their hands about the assimilability of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, they were outright banning immigration from China and other parts of Asia.

It’s also possible for immigrants to seem less Americanizable than their ancestors were. The ability of many lighter-skinned Muslim immigrants (and their descendants), in particular, to become American has changed over time. After 9/11, the idea that being Muslim is what makes their Americanness problematic appears to have prevailed.

In 2010, during the fight over whether to allow a Muslim community center to be built in lower Manhattan (referred to as the “Ground Zero Mosque”), this graffiti appeared at the proposed site for the building.
In 2010, during the fight over whether to allow a Muslim community center to be built in lower Manhattan (referred to as the “Ground Zero Mosque”), this graffiti appeared at the proposed site for the building.
Spencer Platt/Getty

When this happens, Americans tend to shift the burden onto the immigrants themselves — to prove their loyalty to America by rejecting the trappings of their ancestral cultures. It's the zero-sum logic Donald Trump employs when he talks about Muslims and Hispanics alike. Because their Americanness is suspect, they have to assimilate — to reject their ancestral cultures — rather than simply integrating.

It’s difficult to state how counterproductive this is. For decades, social psychologists and sociologists have found that the healthiest, most successful immigrants (and their second-generation descendants) are those who retain strong ties to both their family’s culture and that of the country in which they live. Immigrants without connections to their home culture — fully “assimilated” immigrants — are relatively worse off.

But when that happens, it becomes the immigrants’ own fault. It becomes a failure not of society but of culture. For a domestic example, just think of the myth of “acting white” — white Americans attempting to explain why black Americans do less well in school by speculating that black Americans simply have different values and have made different choices; that they are the ones who have decided they cannot be both well-educated and black.

This is an occasion where politics affects everyday behavior — for the worse

The decisions about who gets to be considered American are made every day — in schoolyards, on airplanes, in drugstores. The people shaping the “receiving context” into which immigrants arrive aren’t just policymakers but everyday people.

Many of those everyday people support Donald Trump. And Trump is expressing a belief they have been afraid to express in public: that their intuition that Muslim or Hispanic Americans aren’t “really” American is probably right; that it's the job of the immigrants to prove they love America more; that if they don’t, they probably believe in Sharia law and are only in the US to plot to destroy you.

Sarkar Haq, a New York shopkeeper, was beaten in an alleged anti-Muslim hate crime in December 2015.
Sarkar Haq, a New York shopkeeper, was beaten in an alleged anti-Muslim hate crime in December 2015 — shortly after Donald Trump called for a shutdown of Muslims entering the US.
Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty

We don't know how that is shaping how Trump’s followers interact with people who are different from that. Maybe Trump isn’t saying anything they weren’t already putting into practice. But maybe hearing someone say what they were afraid to say aloud will embolden them to start acting that way, too. And there’s no reason to believe that if Trump loses, his followers will suddenly be convinced that he was wrong all along.

Donald Trump is making it easier for nth-generation, “unhyphenated” Americans to block immigrants from fully integrating — by demanding they do just that. And the sick, sad irony is that for so many immigrants, assimilation isn't all it’s cracked up to be.