What Does Assimilation Mean?

Catherine Ramírez’s interest in studying how immigrants fit into American society was shaped by unlikely bedfellows: Alejandro Portes and Samuel P. Huntington.
When Samuel P. Huntington first published “The Hispanic Challenge,” in Foreign Policy in 2004, I was an assistant professor of American studies ...

At Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, each fellow is assigned a study. On the wall outside each study is a list of “ghosts”: scholars who have worked in the space in years past. For this series, current CASBS fellows reflect on the ghosts in their studies, and how these previous fellows have influenced the work being done at the Center today.

When Samuel P. Huntington first published “The Hispanic Challenge,” in Foreign Policy in 2004, I was an assistant professor of American studies, wrapping up a book about women zoot suiters. My interests were style politics, performativity, and intersectionality. I had never heard of Huntington. The subjects of his writings—civilian-military relations, the political orders of democracy and dictatorship, and post-Cold War geopolitics—didn’t top my list of research interests. Until, that is, the contentious Harvard professor and advisor to world leaders trained his sights on Latinxs. “The single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America,” he wrote in “The Hispanic Challenge.” Suddenly, my inbox was awash in indignant emails from other concerned Latinx scholars. Samuel P. Huntington had entered my life.

In “The Hispanic Challenge,” as well as in his 2004 book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Huntington warned that immigration from Latin America threatened the cultural and political integrity of the United States. Hispanics, he wrote, were unable and unwilling to assimilate into an inherently Anglo-Protestant US mainstream. As evidence of this “inability” to assimilate, he pointed to the persistence of the Spanish language among Latinxs. I was struck not only by his alarmist declarations, gross generalizations, and facile assumptions—chief among them that the US is, always has been, and should remain an Anglo-Protestant monolith—but that I, one of the 35.3 million Hispanics at the time, over whom he was fretting, had read all of this in English.

As I finished writing my book about women zoot suiters, I couldn’t help but notice how much Huntington sounded like the World War II-era cops, teachers, reporters, judges, social workers, and scholars who had insisted that second-generation Mexican American youths were so unassimilable that they were unfit for the responsibilities of democracy. According to their contemporary critics, these zoot-clad, slang-talking, jitterbugging Mexican Americans didn’t embody an alternative form of Americanness. Instead, Mexican Americans were essentially and defiantly un-American. Huntington echoed this claim, prodding me to contemplate assimilation and its outsized role in defining who is and who isn’t an American.

When I began writing my second book, Assimilation: An Alternative History, I wasn’t interested in countering his argument. Other scholars and cultural commentators had already done that. Instead, I wanted to explore the history of assimilation as a concept: When and why does assimilation come to matter? How has it been defined and measured? Who assimilates and who doesn’t? And what’s at stake in debates about assimilation and assimilability? These were the questions that led me to the work of Alejandro Portes, a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton University.

Portes’s research and writing, much of which documents how immigrants are reshaping the United States, has challenged many of Huntington’s arguments. For example, in City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami, Portes and one of his coauthors, sociologist Alex Stepick, push back against the idea that immigrants assimilate into an Anglo-Protestant mainstream. They argue that Miami is a bicultural city, where the newcomer doesn’t necessarily mimic the host. Rather, acculturation happens in reverse: foreign customs, institutions, and languages are woven into those of the native population, producing biculturalism. Opponents of biculturalism, Portes and Stepick observe, “must either withdraw into their own diminished circles or exit the community.”

Biculturalism and acculturation in reverse worried Huntington. By decentering the center, they reduce the erstwhile majority to yet another social group, a minority even, thereby challenging its hold on power. Huntington bemoaned Miami’s Hispanicization. In the decade between 1983 and 1993, approximately 140,000 non-Hispanic whites left the city. A bumper sticker surfaced in those years that read, “When the last American leaves Miami, please take the flag.”

Portes’s greatest gift to me, as a scholar, has been his rethinking of assimilation.

When I was a teenager I saw a variation of that bumper sticker some 2,700 miles away from Miami, in my hometown of Monterey Park, California. In the 1980s, as I was learning Spanish in a high-school classroom full of pochas (Americanized Mexicans), Monterey Park became a battlefront in the struggle to maintain the dominance of the English language in the United States. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the city was the West Coast equivalent of Queens and Brooklyn. Just as Eastern European immigrants and their second-generation children had left New York’s Lower East Side for the outer boroughs by the mid-20th century, Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans moved from Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles to the rolling subdivisions of Monterey Park in the decades following World War II. By the ’80s, an influx of Chinese-speaking Taiwanese immigrants had transformed the bedroom community just east of downtown LA into what journalists and scholars were dubbing America’s first suburban Chinatown.

My father, a Chicano who was born in Arizona and raised in East LA, was part of the mid-century exodus to Monterey Park. When he bought our four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in 1959, he helped transform Monterey Park into a majority-minority city. He and my mother, an immigrant from Mexico, raised my sisters and me in that house. Many of our neighbors were immigrants from Asia. We took off our shoes when we entered their homes. They ate sticky white rice, while ours was the color of an LA sunset on a smoggy day. Their kids attended Japanese, Korean, or Chinese school on Saturday mornings. My sisters and I went to Catholic school. Depending on what time we managed to get out of the house, we attended mass either in English or in Spanish on Sunday mornings.

My sisters and I were different from the other kids in our neighborhood, but we still had a lot in common with them. We spoke English with one another in the street, at the park, and in our backyard. There, we reenacted scenes from The Bionic Woman and Star Wars and listened to songs by the Spinners and The Knack on a transistor radio. Then we returned home to an immigrant parent or grandparent who spoke, watched TV, listened to music, worshipped, and read the newspaper in another language. Sometimes we misunderstood, lost patience with, were embarrassed by, lied to, and outright defied our immigrant forebears. Sometimes we made them laugh or kvell. More often than not, we showed them the respect they deserved, did our best not to disappoint them, and cherished their support as we navigated our own home and neighborhood, as well as the expanding world beyond.

From Portes’s work on immigration and assimilation, I learned that my sisters and I, and many of the kids we grew up with, were part of the second generation: the US-born children of immigrant parents, or foreign-born children who arrived in the US before adolescence. To better understand the impact of immigration on the US since 1965, Portes and his frequent collaborator, Rubén Rumbaut, studied second-generation youth and their immigrant parents. Among those children and parents, I see snippets of myself, my family, and our neighbors in Monterey Park.

My introduction to Portes’s work was Immigrant America: A Portrait, the 1990 book he coauthored with Rumbaut. I first read it in 1994, as a graduate student in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. That year, a majority of California voters backed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to deny undocumented immigrants nonemergency health care, public education, and social services. Supporters of the initiative, among them California’s then Governor, Pete Wilson, insisted that they weren’t racist, xenophobic, or anti-Mexican. They were simply opposed to illegal immigration. Wilson’s infamous “They Keep Coming” TV ad belied this claim. In the ad, a narrator intones, “They keep coming, two million illegal immigrants in California,” while a grainy video shows blurry bodies scurrying past an international checkpoint emblazoned with the word “MEXICO.”


The Future of Migration

By David Cook-Martín

A federal judge later struck down Prop 187 on the grounds that immigration is the federal government’s jurisdiction. But the spirit of the initiative has come back with a vengeance in the 21st century, in the form of SB1070 and HB56, bills in Arizona and Alabama that require law enforcement officers to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person is undocumented. SB1070 and HB56 also penalize people who shelter, hire, and transport undocumented immigrants and require school officials to ascertain students’ legal statuses. Kris Kobach, an advisor to President Donald J. Trump, and Huntington’s former student at Harvard, drafted both bills.

Reading Immigrant America in California in 1994, I was struck by how history repeats itself. Just as Congress cracked down on immigration in response to the arrival of more than 20 million immigrants to the United States between 1880 and 1924, Prop 187 erupted after a spike in immigration in the 1980s. “The attraction of America, it seems, remains as strong as ever,” Portes and Rumbaut observed in 1990, “as does the accompanying ambivalence and even alarm many native-born Americans express toward the newest arrivals.” Because the Immigration Act of 1924 effectively halted immigration from Europe to the United States, European immigrants and their US-born children, whom “old stock” Americans didn’t consider adequately white, assimilated. The “new” immigrants and their progeny went from being Sicilians, Hungarians, and Russians, to being Americans. How, I wondered, would the even newer immigrants and their kids assimilate in the aftermath of Prop 187?

Portes’s greatest gift to me, as a scholar, has been his rethinking of assimilation. Assimilation is generally understood as a process of absorption and becoming more alike. The 20th-century European experience in the US has served as the basis for what’s known as the classical model of assimilation in sociology, which posits that assimilation is a linear and inexorable process. Immigrants arrive and never look back: they change their names, learn English, acquire capital, and participate in mainstream institutions and culture. Within a few generations their descendants blend in. In their 2001 book, Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation, Portes and Rumbaut call attention to the centrality of the concept of assimilation in the United States. “For the most part,” they write, the story of assimilation “has been told in optimistic tones and with an emphasis on the eventual integration of the newcomers.” Often narrated as the American dream, the story of assimilation isn’t just optimistic, it’s triumphalist.

Portes and another coauthor, sociologist Min Zhou, reframe that story via the concept of “segmented assimilation” in their oft-cited 1993 article, “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants.” Using census data and three case studies involving immigrants from Mexico, India, and the Caribbean, they show that, since immigrant groups and society itself are heterogeneous, there’s no single way of being assimilated. While some immigrants and their kids and grandkids integrate into the white middle class, others advance economically precisely by remaining in their immigrant communities. And then there are those who never advance. “Children of nonwhite immigrants may not even have the opportunity of gaining access to middle-class white society, no matter how acculturated they become,” according to Portes and Zhou. “Joining those native circles to which they do have access may prove a ticket to permanent subordination and disadvantage.”

Do we want the U.S. to be a two-tier society comprised of citizens and non-citizens?

The book that I’m now completing at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) responds to the theorizations of segmented assimilation put forth by Portes and his coauthors. In the US, and in Portes’s own work, assimilation is widely regarded as an outcome of immigration: it’s the process by which immigrants turn into Americans. Meanwhile, assimilation as Americanization has been defined as the opposite of racialization, the process by which racial categories are produced and understood as part of a social hierarchy.

Like Portes and his coauthors, I reckon with the reality of racial stratification as I rethink assimilation. But I also decouple immigration and assimilation to show how certain social groups that are not immigrants, or that are not considered legitimate immigrants (such as indigenous peoples, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and undocumented immigrants), have been assimilated as racialized subjects. I argue that assimilation isn’t only a result of immigration. Assimilation as racialization is also a consequence of US imperialism, slavery, and an immigration apparatus that ranks people who move across international borders. Assimilation warrants our attention because it’s connected to ideas about belonging and merit. Whether they’re native-born or newcomers, people who aren’t considered deserving members of society don’t enjoy the rights, resources, or recognition that the state affords to some.

Segmented assimilation is the fulcrum of what I call the paradox of assimilation: the fact that some people are assimilated as outsiders, even while on the inside. To illustrate that paradox, I look to the Puerto Rican students who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and today’s participants in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is a program that grants certain undocumented immigrants temporary permission to work and to be temporarily reprieved from deportation, but it doesn’t offer a path to citizenship or to legal permanent residency. Quite paradoxically, DACA formalizes its participants’ marginalization and vulnerability. By showing that there are many strata in society into which people assimilate, and many outcomes of assimilation, Portes and his coauthors have enriched our understanding of the processes by which people become American, however precarious that status may be.

Over the 2019–20 academic year, I’m wrapping up my book on assimilation in the same study that Portes occupied when he was a CASBS fellow in 1980–81. Our study offers a dazzling view of the Stanford campus. From its vantage, the most prominent landmark on campus is the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank where Huntington’s words have frequently been pondered and debated. Both Huntington and Portes have pushed my work in new and unexpected directions. Above all, they’ve allowed me to better understand what sociologist Douglas S. Massey has called the real Hispanic challenge: the barrier of illegality.


The Immigration Crisis Archive

By César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

Hispanics make up nearly 17 percent of the US population, but as, Massey has pointed out, 22 percent of all persons of Mexican origin are undocumented.1 Among Central American immigrants, that percentage is even higher. He and other scholars attribute the precarious status of the undocumented to misguided border policies. As border enforcement has increased, making it more difficult to enter the US with or without papers, immigrants already present in the country have opted to stay put. For many of these immigrants, especially those who arrived here as children, the US is home, but they’re unable to participate fully in society and to improve their lives—in other words, to assimilate, in the best sense—as long as they’re undocumented.

The figures Massey presents are sobering, if not downright scary. They should prompt us to ask: Do we want the US to be a two-tier society comprised of citizens and non-citizens? Will Huntington’s vision of a nation torn in half be realized, with the divide falling not along linguistic or cultural lines, but between those with and those without papers? Will other cities begin to look more like Miami and Monterey Park? Or will we resemble apartheid-era South Africa, the Jim Crow South, or Germany after the Nuremberg Laws? What kind of society do we want to live in? Who are we?


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Douglas S. Massey, “The Real Hispanic Challenge,” Pathways (Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2015), 3–7.
Featured image: Welcome to America, Indeed (2009). Photograph by CGP Grey / Wikimedia