America needs an integration policy

US can take the cue from Western Europe on how to improve opportunities for immigrants

Fourth and fifth graders cheering as immigrants take part in a US naturalisation ceremony on Sept 17 in Jersey City. Immigrant families in the United States trail those in Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands when one compares income
Fourth and fifth graders cheering as immigrants take part in a US naturalisation ceremony on Sept 17 in Jersey City. Immigrant families in the United States trail those in Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands when one compares income relative to the national average.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The United States takes in far more legal immigrants each year than any other nation on Earth, more than a million. Americans have a great deal of confidence in their ability to welcome and integrate these newcomers and their children.

But America's successful integration of immigrants is less exceptional - whether we take that word to mean unique or excellent - than we think. That is the conclusion of our comparative study of immigrant integration in six North American and Western European countries (the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands).

The focus, we should note, was on low-status immigrants who came with limited education, took jobs at the very bottom of the labour market, and were considered outsiders. Examples are Mexicans in the US, North Africans in France, and Turks in Germany and the Netherlands.

Immigrant families in the US trailed those in the other countries when we compare income relative to the national average. Just before the Great Recession began, the average income of Hispanic immigrant households in the US was only 57 per cent of that of native households. For non-EU immigrant families in European countries, this fraction varied between 75 and 90 per cent.

The degree of residential segregation of low-status immigrant groups is also worse in the US than in any of the other five countries. No country in Western Europe has an equivalent to the South Bronx -an area encompassing more than a million people, including numerous immigrant families living among other minorities, with a poverty rate approaching 40 per cent.

When it comes to the social and economic mobility of the children of immigrants, there are both better (Britain) and worse (Germany) countries for immigrants than the US these days. In almost all countries with large low-status immigrant populations (with the exception of Britain), the second generation experiences sizeable educational inequalities compared with the native majority. Despite signs of considerable improvement since 2000 in the educational records of Hispanic youth, the educational inequalities in the US are as great as in much of Western Europe.

There is one respect in which the US is exceptional: Americans are quick to accept immigrants as Americans-in-the-making and to regard their US-born children as full-fledged members of the national community. The immigrants and their children often reciprocate by showing high levels of patriotism, evidenced by a willingness to serve in the military. This ready acceptance of immigrants reflects America's bedrock nation-of-immigrants self-definition.

But this willingness to accept immigrants and their children as part of the American nation should not be confused with on-the-ground institutional arrangements that improve the opportunities for immigrants and their children to move ahead, such as the maternelles, the universal pre-K system in France that takes the children of immigrants into a mainstream-language setting before the age of three. In countries like France and the Netherlands, the prevailing attitudes towards immigrants, certainly those who are Muslim, may entail hostility, but at the same time there is more concern to craft public policies to ease integration, if not for the immigrants, then for their children.

In America, conversely, the more accepting personal views towards immigrants mask the need for public action and policies to facilitate integration. This is partly due to another bedrock American value: self-reliance. Looking back to their own families' immigrant narratives from the past, many Americans downplay the struggles and difficulties their ancestors faced in their migration and remember the ultimate, and successful, assimilation.

There are plenty of reasons to extol the merits of American individualism, but embracing a sink-or-swim Darwinism to immigration is to distort both the past and the present. Americans fail to appreciate, for example, how much the massive mobility of the mid-20th century depended on post-war government investment in public colleges and universities, which in just three decades expanded five-fold the capacities of the country's higher education system.

Americans cannot take for granted that their country will succeed at integration in the future. The US needs to take more affirmative steps to promote immigrant integration, whether this is a matter of outreach to encourage naturalisation (something Canada does), co-ethnic mentoring programmes to assist students whose immigrant parents lack education beyond primary school (something the Netherlands does), or policies to support social mixing and decent public housing (again, as in the Netherlands).

The United States needs to give up the illusion that it is the brightest beacon of hope for immigrants and realise that it now can learn from others.

•Richard Alba is distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York and Nancy Foner is distinguished professor of sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Centre.

•This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'America needs an integration policy'. Subscribe