E.g., 11/01/2014
E.g., 11/01/2014

Immigrant Integration: Building to Opportunity

Adjust Font    |    Print    |    RSS    |    Reprint Permission

Immigrant Integration: Building to Opportunity

Countries that receive immigrants today confront a migration context that in many ways is different from that experienced in earlier decades. The frequency and speed with which people can move between countries and continents means that many can simultaneously maintain social, political, and even economic ties in two or more societies. Transportation and communication technologies have thrown into question the "permanence" of leaving a society of birth behind, and have transformed the ways in which newcomers build new economic, social, and cultural lives in the societies where they choose to settle. What does this much more fluid context mean for understanding "integration" as a process that can extend over generations? What are the challenges entailed in developing integration policies in a dynamic and culturally diverse socio-political context? What kind of integration is most desirable and useful, and for whom?

Social and Cultural Diversity

Unlike earlier eras, migrants today come from every region of the world and represent an incredible array of linguistic and cultural heritages. Moreover, the places that receive them, which are overwhelmingly cities in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, New Zealand, and the countries of East and Southeast Asia), quickly become kaleidoscopes of cultures, identities, and histories. These cities are the bedrock of integration -- the places where the cultural diversity of today's newcomers, as well as the challenges of living together as a community, are brought together in neighborhoods that are truly multiethnic rather than homogeneous urban villages.

The diversity of today's migration flows, however, does not end with culture, language, or social class. While the vast majority arrive as legal migrants, some skirt around immigration laws and management systems, and experience a precarious life defined by an absence of legal status with respect to the economy and social institutions of the receiving society. The vast majority of newcomers make an active choice to build a life in a new country but others, due to political and military turmoil or persecution, are forced into migration and a state of "statelessness" that may last for years. For refugees, the experiences of persecution and long-term forced displacement pose particular challenges for reconciliation with the imposed status of being a migrant and successful settlement in a new society.

To understand the ways in which immigrants and their children build lives in a new society means that we conceive of integration as something more than simple characterizations of the "melting pot" predicated upon a process of unidirectional assimilation orchestrated by the receiving society. Integration now is understood as a sustained mutual interaction between newcomers and the societies that receive them; an interaction that may well last for generations. Dealing directly with the complexities inherent in these interactions has tremendous importance for the ways that groups live together, the quality of public debate about migration, and especially the public policy goal of "good governance" with respect to immigration for the benefit of newcomers and long-time residents alike.

Symbolic and Social Integration: The Challenge of Fluid Concepts

There are, however, significant challenges inherent in understanding integration as a process based on sustained interactions and mutual change, not the least of which is the language we use to describe it. Our vocabulary seems wedded to a normative vision of societies as culturally homogeneous, in which residents born in other places are exceptional rather than customary participants in economic, social, and cultural life. Moreover, terms such as "minority" and "majority" connote fixed blocks and work on an implied association between numerical dominance and social power that may not actually be the case in multiethnic neighborhoods, cities and/or societies. In several North American cities, "white" residents who are not foreign-born may be a numerical minority but control the major economic and socio-cultural institutions.

The Importance of the Symbolic: Cultural Integration

The cultural and/or symbolic dimensions of integration are in some ways the most hotly debated because they are so closely associated with the quality of interactions between newcomers, their descendents, and the receiving society, as well as the adoption and/or rejection of cultural norms by newcomers and long-established residents alike. In addition, the cultural dimensions of integration are subject to re-invention, especially as later generations re-discover and re-interpret an ancestral heritage in light of the positive social values attached to "ethnic" heritages and identities in many societies. Balancing cultural identities and a sense of belonging is a highly complex process. For example, most studies acknowledge that cultural integration or "acculturation" or "symbolic integration" -- the adoption by newcomers of the cultural patterns of the receiving society -- often is already well underway among all but the most isolated of cultural groups long before they set foot in North America or Europe. Although it is readily assumed that newcomers begin to "become American or European" only post-arrival, the global reach of western culture, lifestyles and consumption patterns means that most newcomers are already "western" to some degree before they arrive. Conventionally, cultural integration is measured in terms of a sense of belonging to the receiving society, the occasions and qualities of cultural contact between groups, convergence of child rearing practices, and inter-group marriages, as well as by the degree to which groups remain apart -- for example, separate religious institutions and schools, or the intent to return one day to a home country.

One limitation of equating integration with acculturation is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, expectation that immigrants will be incorporated directly into the unwavering norms, values, and interests of the established receiving society. This is clearly problematic given the numerous internal differences that exist within most societies. For example, there are variations in American culture from region to region, as well as across social classes. In the United States, it is not reasonable to assume that immigrant cultural integration occurs in relation to a single, middle-class cultural standard. Although cosmopolitanism is often regarded as one of the defining qualities of western culture, the recognition of plural influences and traditions within one society seems to fall away in analyses of immigrant cultural integration. Contemporary approaches to integration recognize that culture is an amalgam of different influences and has evolved, and will continue to evolve, over time.

Running parallel to acculturation is the retention of some aspects of ancestral cultural identities, norms, values, and traditions among individuals and groups even generations after migration. The majority of Americans and Canadians, for instance, readily acknowledge a non-North American ethnic ancestry that may be rich in symbolic significance but holds little practical consequence. Through analysis of the constituent elements of identity, it has been suggested that ethnicity can be thought of as a cultural construction that is re-created or "invented" by immigrants and their descendents in response to particular economic, social, or structural conditions within the receiving society. The fact of living in a neighborhood with other people from the same ethnic background, for example, may furnish a critical mass of adherents to support local religious institutions, mutual aid associations, or schools. Likewise, a niche in the labor force dominated by one ethnic group may allow members to utilize their language on a daily basis outside of the home or follow paths of social mobility that demand less sustained interaction with the receiving society. The "re-invented" ethnic identity and institutions that emerge out of these conditions in the country of reception, however, may look, feel, and function in a distinctly different manner compared to those found in the country of origin or even those "re-invented" by earlier waves of newcomers who came to the "new world."

Becoming acculturated into, or feeling a part of, a receiving society, and the ways in which this is balanced against an ancestral heritage, is one important dimension of the integration question. Although the strength of a simultaneous attachment to a receiving society and an ancestral heritage may wax and wane with time and across generations, it is generally assumed that feeling part of the receiving society's culture is fairly rapid, especially as newcomers improve their facility with the host society's language and exposure to the popular media. Social integration, however, is seen as a much longer process in part because it entails changes in socio-economic status from often a relatively weak starting position in the labor market of the receiving society.

Making It: The Challenges of Social and Civic Integration

Social integration, and its synonyms "socio-economic," "instrumental," and "functional" integration, is usually examined in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region by measurable dimensions of status change such as education levels, competency in the receiving society's language(s), type of occupation, and household income. One of the benefits of these indicators is that they are readily available in censuses or large-scale surveys, and correspond to conventional understandings of how to measure upward social mobility. Regarded as "instrumental" measures of integration, these indicators are frequently positioned next to measures of "civic" integration such as participation by newcomers in political parties, unions, churches, and voluntary associations. Social and civic integration are frequently analyzed in tandem because they can be mutually reinforcing -- for example, participation in the civic life of the community can have 'tap on' benefits in terms of language acquisition and information about employment and education opportunities. Like cultural integration, the constituent elements of social and civic integration furnish a snapshot of the meaning and quality of interactions between newcomers and the receiving society.

  • Linguistic Integration: e.g., language used in public interactions, competency in a new language, language used in the home, language used in inter-generational communication.
  • Labor Market Integration: e.g., education level, labor force participation of men and women, unemployment rate, labor market segmentation, socio-professional mobility, individual and/or household income.
  • Civic/Political Integration: e.g., participation in political parties, unions, neighborhood associations, religious institutions and/or community groups, registration to vote, voting behavior.
  • Educational Integration: e.g., school performance, school drop-out rates, choice of schools, post-secondary education attainment, interaction with students from receiving society, parent-teacher communication.
  • Residential Integration: e.g., degree of residential concentration/segregation, residential mobility, homeownership rates, dwelling size/crowding, discrimination in rental markets.

The degree of social integration and socio-economic mobility of immigrants has typically been examined using an array of indicators from large-scale surveys and censuses. Listed in the sidebar box are some of the variables used to assess the principal trajectories of social integration and civic participation. It should be noted, however, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the second generation in most data sources. In addition, there is a general lack of good longitudinal analysis to assess effectively the integration progress and experiences of newcomers and their descendents.

Integration Challenges & Policy Paths

Recent North American and European research indicates that immigrants quickly adopt many conventional norms and values of the receiving society, while still maintaining a strong positive valuation of their culture and language. Socio-economic integration and mobility, however, may be proceeding at a slower pace, especially relative to earlier generations.

A large-scale American study led by Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut examining the education experiences, aspirations, and socio-economic mobility of the children of immigrants confirms that the vast majority, regardless of ethnic origin, aspire to college degrees and professional-level occupations. In this, they mirror the aspiration profile of American-born youth overall. However, a large proportion of these children grow up under conditions of severe disadvantage and face major impediments to attaining their goals. In the United States, this is especially true for Mexicans, Haitians, Laotians, Nicaraguans and Cambodians, who find their futures blocked by a lack of resources and suitable training, as well as by racial discrimination. This strong mismatch between aspirations and the resources for attaining goals has led some researchers to suggest that the second generation may be trapped between the low-skill/income jobs and education histories of their parents and their own American-style aspirations.

The disappearance of many well-paid, if relatively low-skill, middle-class jobs due to economic restructuring in essence has created an hourglass employment profile in which most job opportunities are clustered at either the low- or high-skill/paid ends of the employment spectrum. The "disappearing middle" has left the children of immigrants with the daunting challenge of leaping in a single generation from the low-paid menial service employment opportunities occupied by their parents to well-paid professional and technical jobs requiring advanced education and training. Although second-generation success stories can be identified, for many young people these experiences are the exception rather than the rule. The blocked social mobility and integration of the second generation, spawned by accelerated immigration policies in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as limited integration assistance programs in many cities, may well over time become manifest as social fragmentation rather than inclusion.

There are numerous integration challenges that newcomers and their children face in immigrant receiving countries, blocked social mobility of the second generation being just one. Meeting challenges in part demands effective social and economic policies that can address the circumstances that immigrants encounter in the places where they settle. Immigration is a public policy that is largely regulated at the national level in terms of who enters a country and in what numbers, but the effects of immigration and the integration issues raised by national-level decisions are largely felt at a very local level. Unlike other social needs, such as health care and education, where demand is fairly consistent in all places across a nation, immigrant integration is a highly localized policy issue due to the fact that immigrants show a strong propensity to settle in places with good employment opportunities and "built in" ethnic community social ties that are available to assist in initial settlement.

Not only do immigrants settle overwhelmingly in some large "gateway" cities (e.g., New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, London, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne), they also tend to concentrate in particular inner-city neighborhoods and, increasingly, in suburban districts. In order to undertake effective public policy development and service delivery, this "uneven geography" of settlement will challenge national-level governments to develop effective relationships with local municipal governments and non-governmental organizations. Integration policies and programs ultimately will succeed when they are grounded in the particular socio-economic, cultural, and political circumstances of communities that receive immigrants and refugees. Neighborhoods and cultural communities within cities are the crucibles of integration, and it is extremely important that their capacity to undertake this important work is strong. We need to ask critical questions about whether communities are as capable of integrating newcomers as they were in earlier times and if not, what accounts for changes in their integration capacity.

There is, of course, tremendous variation across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region in the ways national and local governments communicate, share power, and deliver programs, as well as in how governments at all levels interact with the non-governmental sector that often does a large share of integration work. To achieve an inclusive society, research indicates that structures supporting aspirations and upward mobility are fundamental. Likewise, it is necessary to examine seriously the dynamics of a society that is culturally pluralistic and abandon simplistic assumptions that assimilation to a nebulous "western" cultural standard is the only path to social cohesion. To meet these challenges, innovative strategies that unite state and civil society institutions will be necessary to ensure that policy and programs can be truly responsive to the on-the-ground realities of migration and the integration challenges faced by newcomers in contemporary urban economies and culturally pluralistic neighborhoods and workplaces.