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Assimilationism, Discrimination, and the Integration of Immigrant Minorities


From the guest worker programs of the 1970s to the recent refugee crisis, mass migration has dramatically altered the face of Western societies. Two tendencies have been triggered by this rising diversity. First, governments are increasingly adopting or debating policies with an assimilationist flavor. Since the 1990s, most Western European countries introduced language requirements, integration contracts or country values and history tests in order to grant immigrants citizenship or permanent residency. In the last ten years, national and local governments from Austria to Quebec enacted bans on the full-face veil. Many more debated restrictions on Islamic dress, minarets, and halal food.

Second, migrant-receiving societies have become increasingly nativist. Backlash against immigration drove the rise of far-right parties like UKIP in the UK and Front National in France, and contributed to the success of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. Public opinion studies and academic research show that natives worry about immigration as a cultural threat and are more likely to want to open their doors to assimilated or “assimilable” immigrants than to those who insist on maintaining their cultural distinctiveness.

The politics of migrant-receiving countries and attitudes of native populations have monopolized much of public discussion and scholarly work. Yet little is known about how state policy or anti-immigrant sentiment affect immigrants themselves, and their political, social, and cultural integration. Does requiring the adoption of host country language and mode of dress contribute to immigrant incorporation, or does it trigger backlash and resentment? Does discriminating against immigrants who hold on to their culture function as an incentive to assimilate, or does it instead lead to alienation?

This book provides answers to these questions. I propose an immigrant-centered framework for understanding integration that combines two central theoretical approaches in the social sciences, rational choice theory and social identity theory, to offer insights into immigrants’ decision-making and outcomes. I then examine how these decisions and outcomes are affected by external pressures in the form of state policy and behavior of the native-born.

In support of the framework, I provide new empirical evidence from a historical context that was marked by similarly large immigration flows and concerns about integration of the foreign-born as today: the United States during the Age of Mass Migration. During the first quarter of the 20th century, xenophobia was directed not to Mexicans or Northern Africans, but to Italians, Poles and Eastern European Jews. American society viewed Catholic immigration as threatening as Western Christian-heritage societies view Muslim immigration today. Even before the US shut its doors to unrestricted immigration in the 1920s, nativism and assimilationist initiatives, such as Americanization programs, English-only laws and foreign language bans, were widespread, and their short and long-term effects can inform contemporary debates. I evaluate these effects causally, using a variety of historical datasets, including millions of individual-level census, military and naturalization records of foreign-born residents of the US between 1900 and 1960.

I show that, though they may increase some immigrants’ integration efforts, assimilation policies and societal discrimination more often than not hinder immigrant incorporation and strengthen minority identity. The risk of alienation is highest for immigrants who struggle to reach the prescribed behavioral targets – for example because they are from a more distant culture, start off with low levels of integration, or exhibit intense attachment to their culture of origin. My findings suggest that the most promising way to increase immigrant integration is to provide incentives to invest in the host country’s society and culture, while simultaneously lowering costly behavioral prescriptions and barriers to entry in the form of prejudice.

More broadly, this book offers a unified framework for studying immigrant decisions that bridges the findings of existing scholarly work and adds to our understanding of factors that promote or hinder immigrant integration. To a growing literature on the impact of immigration on native societies and on views that natives hold of immigrants, I also contribute an insight into “the other side”: the goals, motivations and feelings of immigrants themselves, and how these matter for the two-sided process of integration.