The “melting pot” has been glorified, vilified, and dismissed as
obsolete. But both census data and the stories of millions of
individual immigrants indicate that the not-always-easy process of
assimilation is alive and well.
By John Yemma
All Americans are immigrants. Some arrived ages before there were
visas and borders or even countries; most came after. Some arrived
against their will; most arrived hungry for what lay ahead. As
recounted in thousands of immigrant stories, the first days in the New
World could be glorious, dizzying, and upsetting. Opportunity was
abundant and freedom exhilarating. But language, laws, and customs
could be puzzling. Natives could be brusque. Work could be tedious and
When the speed and excess got to be too much, there was always a
sanctuary of fellow immigrants, where faith, food, and conversation
were familiar. From the outside, Little Italy, Chinatown, and every
other ethnic neighborhood could seem strange, even threatening. In the
early 20th century, Anglo-Americans worried that immigrants from
southern and eastern Europe weren’t fitting in. They were creating
separate cultures and threatening the status quo. This was not just
paranoia. Anarchists and labor activists, many rooted in immigrant
communities, challenged the power structure. Criminal groups operated
out of ethnic communities. IQ tests appeared to show a gap between
native- and foreign-born.
But earlier immigrants had also kept to themselves (Germans in
Pennsylvania, Swedes in Minnesota), challenged the power structure
(1776 for example), suffered their share of criminality (the Bowery
Boys of the 1840s, the outlaws of the West), and were considered less
intelligent, motivated, and hygienic than those who arrived before
All the while, however, the assimilation engine was running. Music,
manners, and food were sampled — gingerly at first, then creatively.
Tacos with Vietnamese hot sauce? Why not? Accents altered, friendships
kindled, rings were exchanged. It was not always smooth, but year by
year families blended, neighborhoods integrated, new citizens voted,
and the nation evolved.
As Congress considers legislation that could grant citizenship to
millions of people, the question hanging in the air is whether the
assimilation engine still works. Scholars such as the late Samuel
Huntington of Harvard University and commentators such as Pat Buchanan
have warned that the influx of Latin Americans risks dividing the
country into two societies. Census data and social-science research —
measuring everything from educational achievement to homeownership to
intermarriage — say otherwise.
As Stephanie Hanes’s report shows the process of assimilation is far
from straightforward, especially among first-generation immigrants.
Most flourish, some don’t — just like the native born.
“So why is it that some residents in some states with large new
immigrant populations believe that integration is not occurring?”
asked a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress. “One reason
is that new arrivals increased over a short period while assimilation,
by definition, can only be observed over time.”
If all Americans are immigrants, we all have an immigrant story. My
father’s parents, for instance, arrived from Italy in the early 20th
century; my mother’s family was from Germany in the mid-19th century.
Along the way, the name got changed. There is no “Y” in the Italian
alphabet. So Yemma is an American name — as is Smith, Garcia, Yee,
Shapiro, Shaloub, Nguyen, Patel, Obama, and every other name in the
American phone book.
If I may speak for them: It isn’t always easy becoming an American,
but it’s always good to be one.