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April 1997, Volume 4, Number 4

Americanization, Assimilation and Integration

Peter D. Salins, in recent articles and a new book "Assimilation, American Style," argues that the US must re-dedicate itself to assimilating immigrants if it wishes to maintain a sense of national cultural unity amid ethnic diversity. He concludes that the US can successfully integrate large numbers of immigrants if it can return to the assimilation policies of the early 20th century.

According to Salins, immigrants integrate best when they accept three fundamental norms--English, liberal democracy and the Protestant ethic. Salins contrasts this integration model with two extremes--Patrick Buchanan's nativism and ethnic federalism, or public support for bilingual and multicultural activities.

Salins concentrates on immigrants in New York, and says that most native-born and immigrant residents alike endorsed "Americanization" early in the 20th century. The ideology called for the immigrants to accept English as the national language; believe in America's liberal democratic and egalitarian principles; and to live by what is commonly referred to as the Protestant ethic -- to be self-reliant, hardworking and morally upright. In return, the immigrants would be accepted as full members of the community; with individuals judged by their achievements, rather than by the circumstances of their birth.

The US took other steps to promote assimilation. It actively promoted naturalization. Free public schools ensured the assimilation of immigrants as well as preparing children for the future. According to Salins, there was tolerance of differences as exemplified by the treatment of the Amish in Pennsylvania.

Salins blames 1960s changes that make it hard to assimilate immigrants at the end of the 20th century. He singles out bilingualism, the discrediting of the American idea and the welfare state as eroding the fundamental principles that previously promoted immigrant assimilation. He puts most of the blame on multiculturalism: the notion that the United States should be viewed as a vast multiethnic confederacy and belief that politics is the art of dealing with ethnic grievances.

Salins proposes that the US admit a large, set number of immigrants each year; shift from family unification and employment-based selection systems to a lottery; step up efforts to reduce illegal immigration; limit public benefits to US citizens; and give public schools the chief responsibility for assimilating immigrants.

Peter D. Salins, "America Must Again Assimilate Its Immigrants," Washington Post, February 9, 1997. Salins, Peter D. 1996. Assimilation, American Style. Basic Books.