Should Immigrant Assimilate?

On September 29th, 2009, Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative intellectual and author of numerous books including The End of Racism and What's so Great about America, spoke at a debate at the Yale Political Union in favor of the resolution "Resolved: Immigrants Should Assimilate." After two and a half hours of debate, the resolution failed with 18 votes in the affirmative, 18 votes in the negative and 10 abstentions. Full minutes of debate can be found at here. Below are two student speeches on the topic:

Trevor Wagener, a junior in the Conservative Party, gave a speech in the affirmative.

There is an unusual habit among immigrants' rights advocates to oppose the process of assimilation. Committed multiculturalists criticize the perceived chauvinism of those who dare to insist that immigrants to the United States learn the English language, adopt American political values, identify as Americans, and adapt to live within American culture. Immigrants, multiculturalists argue, have their own cultures and cannot be expected to entirely change their style of life or even their attitudes about the world merely because their address has changed. Those who take pride in their American heritage, however, see a threat both to the American political stability and enlightened American ideals from unassimilated immigrants. I side firmly with the patriots over the multiculturalists in this ongoing debate, and I do so because I am, in the true sense of the word, a liberal.

America today is a state without an ethnicity; nonetheless, like all great powers it is a nation. States that are not coterminous with nations must either be small political units or be endowed with unusual geographic features that impede division and secession, or else civil strife is inevitable, and union is tenuous. Examine the Balkans, the Russian South, the Chinese West, the history of the Irish Isle, and essentially the entire history of mankind in relation to civil conflict, and it becomes evident that a united national identity is the only consistent means to avoid disastrous civil strife. America is a powerful state and, by virtue of its overwhelming stability, must be a nation as well. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the Mid-Twentieth Century, America was a nation with a definite ethnicity, language, and political mentality: Americans were Europeans of any stripe who spoke English and believed in the virtues of democratic government. Not all Americans fit into this mold, but even if they did not, their children inevitably would.

After the Civil Rights Movement, America ceased to be a European nation. While this removed one of the major supports for a sense of national identity, it served to increase America's political stability by recognizing the facts on the ground: A sizeable portion of the American population was not of primarily European descent, and thus any definition of the term "American" that failed to include the sizeable minority populations was creating a political and cultural underclass without a vested interest in the survival of the nation-state.

Had the Civil Rights Movement occurred independent of other political and intellectual trends, America's nationhood would have been solely enhanced by the enlightenment and unity that resulted from the abolition of primitive racial prejudices. Unfortunately, the Civil Rights Movement existed in the context of a radical shift in intellectual thought in the United States that directly challenged American political ideals. Just as Americans came to realize their fellow citizens were their peers regardless of incidental features such as the pigmentation of their skin, purported scholars began to claim that the ethos of America was evil, the nation was meaningless, and the democracy was simply a tool to appease the oppressed. America's mores were attacked and its population was rendered cynical, so the nation was weakened.

Today, America remains cynical, despite the changes in the nation's norms that have rendered it the most enlightened society on the planet. America is the living embodiment of liberty, and yet Americans all to often see only America's blunders, stains, and few remaining injustices. Far too many Americans have become blind to the beauteous civil society our nation possesses; for the multiculturalists especially, Zola says it best: "I do not want to look at her- she is still too ugly."

Even if absolute statements of America's goodness and greatness cannot sway you, the relative truth backs up claims of American excellence. America is the overwhelming target of "poor, huddled masses" to this day, enjoys the highest GDP per capita of any large economy, and remains the longest-lived continually functioning democracy in the world. We are both rich and free because of our public mores, which encourage respect for democratic process, tolerance, and ambition.

It is these public mores that multiculturalists fail to value in suggesting that immigrants need not assimilate. Most immigrants come from countries that have inferior public mores, and consequently are less free and less wealthy. If we do not force immigrants to accept the superiority of our public mores, then we weaken them by allowing the rise of a large class of voters who have values that directly contradict those of the American republic. First generation immigrants, for instance, may share our respect for God, hard work and for the concept of democracy, but they do not value transparency, tolerance or ambition as highly. Instead, first generation immigrant voters far too often carry a lower expectation of propriety for public officials, a prejudice against homosexuals and independent women, and a limited respect for higher education. In order to both ensure the survival of America's ideals we must therefore educate immigrants to ensure that they see the virtue of tolerance, the ability of women to exist independent of men, and the value of honest public officials and education. This forced assimilation benefits immigrants as well, as it encourages them to pressure public officials in their neighborhoods to be transparent in their affairs, allows homosexual and female members of the population to attain greater self-actualization, and prevents the immigrants as a group from becoming an undereducated underclass by fostering both ambition and a respect for education, the keys to widespread social advancement. Assimilation also encourages immigrants to learn to speak English, the language that is required to succeed in life as well as experience ordinary life in the United States. Without assimilating enough to at least learn the language of the United States, immigrants are literally trapped in their ghettoes since they cannot communicate with natural born Americans and cannot feel comfortable away from their enclaves.

In sum, multiculturalists would discourage immigrants from learning the savoir-faire that will allow them to become truly successful, happy, and American. Instead, multiculturalists create ghettoes in which people continue to follow the ideals of their forbears: pockets of poverty and ignorance that trap all those within. Assimilation provides the best road out of urban ghettoes for immigrants, and ensures that future generations of Americans of every ethnicity and origin will share the same enlightenment, ideals, liberty, and prosperity. People deserve equality of opportunity, whether their parents were immigrants or descendants of the colonists. Assimilation is the road to that equality.

Laura Marcus, a senior in the Tory Party, gave a speech in the negative.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen! Regarding tonight's resolution in particular, that immigrants should assimilate, there are those here who say yea, there are those who say nay, and then there are those who say loudly and proudly: to a certain extent! I am delighted to stand before you this evening this evening to raise high the banner for us moderates, who by necessity are often marginalized by the dichotomous structure of debate. For I am sure that I am not alone in my belief that a little assimilation is for the best. That it would be beneficial and desirable if immigrants to America should, say, follow the laws, try to develop an appreciation for civil rights, and perhaps learn a little English.

But I reject strongly Mr. D'Souza's assertion that immigrants must divest themselves of all but the superficial elements of their culture, and in this speech I propose to explain why.

Mr. D'Souza argues that immigrants should "assimilate to those strategies that will best help them to succeed." Well, what does it mean to succeed? According to Mr. D'Souza's speech, it may be one of two things: (1) material success, the value of which he himself contests or (2) some abstract self-fulfillment of the individual. He did not sketch out the latter to my satisfaction, so I will do so now.

I would contest that self-fulfillment, abstract a concept though it may be, is much, much harder to attain without a robust culture that provides structure, meaning, and purpose to our lives.

Mr. D'Souza dismisses the importance of culture offhand, as something "rooted in the cult," and therefore, one supposes, something antiquated, superstitious, and essentially false and foolish. Flimsy as such etymological arguments are, I am pleased to rebut him on his own grounds. Culture indeed may be rooted in the cult. But humans are rooted in humus, the soil - the way we relate to it, the way we cultivate it. We are tied by nature to our own piece of soil. To sever ourselves from this piece of soil is to sever us not only from our culture, but from our humanity.

So what do we make of these transplants, immigrants? Now Mr. d'Souza has argued that two competing values systems - say, American values and so-called "old country" values - can never exist side by side. That one must necessarily be made subordinate to the other.

Well yes, they cannot be reconciled into a coherent philosophical framework, but I do not put so much stock in coherent philosophical frameworks anyway. They are at best pernicious and at worst blasphemous - freshmen, don't let them tell you otherwise!

I know many, many people in this room - and I am one of them - who struggle in vain to reconcile their identities, knowing full well that they carry with them commitments that can never be made into a perfect whole. And yet we do not rid ourselves, for convenience's sake, of one of these identities. They are part of us, and they exist side by side!

Now I have a lot of identities. Mi Mamá es de México, Meine Großmutter kommt aus Deutschland, בישראל משפחה לי יש וגם

I'm a Hawaiian by birth, a Hoosier by upbringing, a Colts fan therefore by necessity, a woman, a Yale student, a Humanities major, and, as of about 2:45 this afternoon, a paying member of the Tango Club.

But my two most important identities are my identity as an American and my identity as a Jew - and the commitments that these identities carry with them are very, very often at odds with one another.

America says, "all men are created equal." Judaism says, "Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."
America says, "egalitarianism." Judaism says, "gender roles."
America says, "cheeseburger." Judaism says, "OU certified glatt kosher beef patty with parve tofutti topping. Or cholent."

And you'd better believe that I embrace all of these dichotomies with a whole heart. It is a constant struggle to navigate a life in which I honor - to the best of my abilities - the claims made on me by these to forces, but I do not feel in any way at a loss for it. If I, in all the sincerity of my soul, treat both as they are - as inextricable aspects of my life, as commitments that make me who I am - I feel I am in no way a worse American, nor a worse Jew.

Immigrants find themselves in a similar position, though even more exacerbated by the trauma of transplantation. They come with the baggage of their identities of their home country and often want to cling to them, the way we cling to precious heirlooms that have been handed down for generations. But most times they are happy to adopt an American identity alongside it. After all, if there weren't something appealing about the American outlook, why would they have come?

And we should be content with that. To ask more would be to ask immigrants to give up a part of themselves. And in a country in which does hold self-fulfillment as an ideal, that should be the last thing we require of those who seek to make America their home.

More information on the Yale Political Union and its debates can be found at www.yale.edu/ypu.