Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 9): Non-Economic Objections to Immigration; Assimilation and Stubborn Language Facts

In my area of central California, there are many people with ascendants from Mexico. You are normally in daily contact with some of them. As is the case with most immigrations (plural) of long standing though (notably, North African immigration into France), people of Mexican origins occur at various level of cultural integration. Some live with a foot in the Old Country; others, generations, from their immigrant forebears, only look Mexican, speak only a few practical sentences of Spanish but understand more, and they have Spanish last names. A few only have Spanish surnames and, perhaps, distant cousins in Mexico. I know one dark-skinned utmostly “Mexican looking” man whose acquaintance with the Spanish language is a good ability to pronounce Spanish words. This stratification of people identified as “Mexican” creates a kind of optical illusion with consequences on the native-born’s attitudes toward immigration.

Many conservatives, friends of mine included, are fully convinced that Mexican immigrants don’t “try” to assimilate and, in particular, that they don’t want to learn English. In addition, they often add that this resistance contrasts badly with former immigrants, from another era – usually their own ancestors – from Italy, or Greece, or Eastern Europe – who made the effort to learn English quickly, perhaps in six months or so. This common imagery is based on a fallacy and on a half-truth.

The most casual observation in my area is enough to contradict the view that Mexican immigrants reject assimilation into American life. There are people with Spanish first and last names, and a Spanish accent in all the restaurants (on both sides of the counter), in the movie theaters, at the gym I patronize. The same is true in the churches I don’t patronize, I am told. My granddaughter plays soccer with other girls that include the right proportion of Hispanic girls. Local Hispanic parents (mostly Mexicans) don’t fail to send their children to public school, except when they send them to religious schools alongside Anglo Catholics and Anglo evangelicals.

At the heart of the widespread suspicion that “Mexicans” reject assimilation are several myths, endlessly repeated on conservative talk radio, about immigrants and language. They include the idea that Mexicans, and also Central Americans, fiercely resist learning English. This is an important charge because using the language with ease is obviously a necessary condition to any degree of assimilation. In fact, Hispanics don’t resist learning English because they are mostly rational economic actors. They are perfectly aware that their incomes jump up when they know English. My first housekeeper was a vivacious and fully credentialed Mexican secondary school teacher. With good English, she would have quickly become a teacher in California and doubled her income overnight. She told me she knew it. In fact, offers to teach English in miracle time dominate Spanish language radio advertising. The inexpensive English as a Second Language classes in community colleges are chronically oversubscribed.

It’s fairly easy to form an impression of unwillingness to assimilate in connection with contemporary Mexican immigrants, for two reasons. The first is the seemingly permanent existence of a Spanish speaking population. For those who don’t think much about it, there is the easy illusion that the same individuals who spoke only Spanish in 1970 are those who don’t speak anything but Spanish in 2018. It’s in part an auditory misconception, if you wish.

People of Mexican origin have been present in significant numbers in parts of the US, especially in California, for a long time, since WWII, at least. For the past thirty years and until 2010, Mexicans kept coming into the US in large numbers. They are always within earshot of Anglos, who thus hear Spanish spoken ceaselessly. Every time a fresh batch of Latin-Americans lands, including Mexicans, the pool of Spanish monolinguals is replenished. Those who arrived twenty years earlier and left the pool of the strictly Spanish speaking  did it one at a time, without fanfare or announcement. They are not especially noticeable; they are also taken for granted. Since the second generation usually retains the ability to speak some Spanish, any shrinking of the strictly monolingual pool is not self-evident. This process may account by itself for a widespread impression that Mexicans perversely refuse to learn English. If all Mexican and Hispanic immigrants suddenly stopped using Spanish, it would still take something like thirty years for all people with Spanish surnames to know English well. That’s pretty much an adult lifetime and many Anglos would be able to preserve their misapprehension in the meantime, a lifetime.

That was the fallacy. Second, the half-truth. People of Mexican descent live in those same areas in large numbers. Residence of long standing and large numbers both facilitate the formation of relatively ethnically homogeneous, partly self-sufficient areas. For recent immigrants, living in such areas eases greatly the transition via a culturally and linguistically intermediate sphere. It provides the new immigrants with familiar food, shelter, transportation information, and other practical information, directly and thanks to the presence there of Spanish-language media. It’s a rational choice for immigrants to live there, from the standpoint of short term usefulness. It helps considerably their economic and logistical integration into American life. Note that the current dominant mode of immigration based on kinship greatly helps implement this choice. Relatives easily provide temporary room and board, even small loans. Immigrants have always congregated with their own in this manner whenever they could.

At the same time, living in homogeneous immigrant enclaves must actually retard assimilation, the (obligatory) acquisition of the indigenous language, and a good understanding of the culture, in complex ways. Favoring the extended family for both cultural and practical reasons, Mexicans and their descendants often gather three generations under the same roof. Spanish-only immigrants cohabit with their children who arrived at an early age and who are consequently bilingual although often in  severely limited ways. They also usually live close to the children’s children who were brought up in Spanish at home because that was the convenient thing for all though they attend school completely in English. These patterns of settlement for Mexican immigrants ensure that their descendants take a fairly long time to become Americans indistinguishable from others.

In my personal observation, the third generation is often struck between bad Spanish and bad English but they are able to function superficially with both. (Paradoxically, the grandchildren of monolingual literate immigrants may thus end up nearly illiterate in two languages.) Since they mostly go to public school, this is noticeable to all. That is big news and it’s bad big news. The solution is some forms of bilingual education but all bilingual education is anathema to many conservatives in spite of some shining successes. I know personally of one elementary school that offers a track where all the children -Anglos included – seem to me to be competently bilingual, including in writing and reading, in which they are only a little behind their English-only counterparts. So-called “bilingual education” acquired a bad reputation in California about 20 years ago and it’s very difficult to erase it. Courses of study are like teenage girls living in small villages! Rigorously monolingual native-born tend to believe that sudden immersion in the local language is the best policy. (It’s like teaching a child out to swim: Throw him in the deep water; if he does not drown, he can swim.) This belief is simply unfounded. If you don’t think so, try learning Algebra in Mandarin.

At any rate, there appears to be Spanish-mostly towns within sight of mainstream Anglo areas. Individuals who live there do not resist learning English as many would believe; they are learning, albeit slowly and often not very well. The false impression that immigrants stubbornly resist learning English is much fortified by the fact that the overwhelmingly proudly monolingual native-born Anglos have no idea of how time consuming it is to learn a second language. I am sure -from a good number of spontaneous statements – that many are confident that they would become “fluent” in Spanish in six months or so if they cared to. (Whatever “fluent” means; it’s a fluid concept!) One of the most charitable things I have done in my life is to re-assure dozens of Anglos that it was not shameful to be unable to hold a conversation in French even after studying the languages “for two year” in high school!

The native-born’s language delusion persists although they have been sending their children to college, and now, to high school expensive, “semester abroad,” for thirty years with no palpable results. In my experience, based on 25 years of close and careful observation, undergraduates come back from a school stay abroad – almost always on an American campus – having learned in the relevant foreign language only such rare words as “anti-freeze,” “ski wax,” and “suntan lotion.” Americans being overwhelmingly courteous people, they also know ordinary forms of salutation and several ways of saying “Please” and “Thank you.” I must add that this pessimistic assessment does not exclude the possibility that the experience did the young people some good intellectually, in other, non-linguistic ways. Learning a language is a bit like lifting intellectual weights. It’s good for you even if it’s functionally useless.

In point of fact, I believe that hardly any adult learns a language well outside of a school setting, or  of some other regimented setting. (Again, see my essay on this narrow topic: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America,” referenced in Footnote Four.) And, for what it’s worth, of the twenty most accomplished bilingual individuals I now know in the US, more than half are Mexican immigrants; none is a native-born Anglo (or, as they say in Spanish, “ningún.”) They do want to learn English, at least, some do!

As I have remarked, to make matters worse, anti-immigrant rants often contrast explicitly the Mexicans’ putative unwillingness to assimilate or to learn English with the attitudes of imaginary, exemplary former immigrants, from a hundred years ago or more, often the ranters’ own forebears. Those, we are told, learned English almost overnight, never looked back at the Old Country, or much lapsed back into its language. This is a romantic tale with no basis in fact, as much American literature tells us. On the East Coast and in Chicago, American newspapers in languages other than English lasted for two or more generations after the wave of new immigrants of the relevant languages slowed to a trickle. They existed much beyond the 1920s when immigration was essentially shut off. (see footnote 5)

A word of caution to end this segment. One must weigh my words with an understanding of my California parochialism. Of course, I don’t know a lot first-hand about other kinds of immigrants in other parts of the country (the US). Dominicans are not Mexicans; Canadians who move to Florida for good are not Chinese; the Detroit area may make different accommodations for its immigrants than Silicon Valley for its own. Nevertheless, on the whole, I doubt that the broad processes by which immigrants are incorporated into American society differ much because they are so broad, precisely. I am open to contradiction, all the same.

Irrespective of willingness, immigrants differ in their capacity both to become integrated and to assimilate. This cold-hearted observation should be at the core of any wholesale immigration reform. I deal with the topic, of immigration reform at the end of this essay. I do not approach here what might be an important facet of the whole legal immigration phenomenon. Today, with fast and inexpensive transportation available, would-be immigrants  often have several opportunities to reconsider, to decide whether they are really immigrants or just visitors. (I spent, myself, two separate years working in France before my final decision to try and stay in the US for good.) A one-way flight to Europe costs only $400 in the low season. A flight back to  anywhere in Mexico costs even less; a bus fare less than half of the latter. It follows that real immigrants, those who remain for good are more self-selected than was true in the past. I expect that the self-selection pertains largely to the subject’s compatibility with American society. Would-be immigrants who have too hard a time in the US go home voluntarily, I expect. American reform efforts are directed at confirmed volunteers. It should matter.


Footnotes

5  You can trust me on this. I know quite a bit about newspapers longevity. A co-author and I practically invented the concept! See: Carroll, Glenn and Jacques Delacroix. “Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 27:169-198. 1982, and: Delacroix, Jacques and Glenn Carroll. “Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 228:274-291. 1983.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 8]

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