The Important Difference Between Assimilation and Integration


P/C: Wikimedia commons, Navajo man before and after assimilation 1882

The romantic narrative of America describes a nation of many colored threads woven together to create a beautiful tapestry: one of many cultures that mix together to form a unified society. In this context, America as the melting pot continues this legacy of immigrants sharing valuable traditions, diversifying and strengthening the country as a whole. Here, the term assimilation holds positive connotations, often used interchangeably with the word integration, with both used to mean the process of immigrants coming to America and becoming self-sufficient citizens.

History, however, tells a less rosy story: one of harsh rejection and adversity as a result of ignorant opposition to immigration rooted in nativism. These Americans, themselves descended from immigrants, hold divisive views of what assimilation should look like, believing in the annihilation of their native culture, in favor of an absolute white-washing to the dominant white American culture. This has long been the commonly-held view of what assimilation means and how its been practiced. This is juxtaposed with the healthy kind of assimilation that benefits our democratic society as well as the individual. The term for it is Integration and its defined as combining one thing with another so they become a whole. Whereas to assimilate is to become similar to something. The important distinction is cultural preservation.

Not only applied to immigrants, these strict standards of conformity were applied to all minority groups, including African Americans and Native Americans. In Native American boarding schools, the government forced children away from their families for years at a time, stripping them of their native names and any aspect of their culture. Their hair and clothing were changed, speaking their own language was punished, and they were forcibly converted to Christianity. These adversarial sentiments regarding assimilation are expressed by Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Indian Industrial School. “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indian in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”

One of the only actually coherent points made by President Trump in his anti-immigrant rhetoric is that new immigrants cost the government money. However, this claim is false for a number of reasons. Since many immigrants are undocumented, they don’t qualify for government services, not costing the government money. Also, many undocumented workers will take jobs that no one else will, again not hurting the economy. But most importantly, studies have shown that second generation immigrants are among the highest achieving and most economically productive citizens. 36% of second generation Americans are college graduates as compared to 31% of the rest of the U.S. population, according to Pew research data. So, the money these second generation immigrants use by attending public school is more than accounted for in contributing to the economy.

Despite generations of degrading assimilation practices, minority groups and immigrants have made some of the most important and lasting contributions to our culture. We’ve been grappling with the issue of immigration since its conception, it is the story of America. “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists,¨ said Franklin Roosevelt. Viewed in this realist historical context, assimilation has aimed for one homogenous culture, while integration is the process of immigrants becoming self-sufficient members of society and retaining their rich cultural background. Integration is the beautiful tapestry.

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