E.g., 06/22/2022
E.g., 06/22/2022
The Changing Concepts around Immigrant Integration

The Changing Concepts around Immigrant Integration

Two U.S. educators discuss dual-language instruction.

Two U.S. educators discuss dual-language instruction. (Photo: Allison Shelley/EDUimages by All4Ed)

After arrival in their new countries, immigrants often need to adjust. Over the last century, there has been increasing focus on gauging and fostering this integration, particularly in Europe and North America, to reduce tensions and create stronger bonds between native- and foreign-born communities. Over time, the focus on immigrants’ trajectories in the workforce and classroom, their learning of the local language, and engagement with community institutions has changed alongside an evolving understanding of the relationship of the foreign born with their host society. Governments have mostly moved away from viewing the process as one of assimilation, in other words the responsibility of newcomers alone to conform to the dominant national culture. Nowadays, immigrants and host societies are encouraged to cooperate and shape a more supportive community for the entire resident population.

Metrics that evaluate immigrants’ integration have evolved alongside conceptions of integration. Measuring immigrants’ integration outcomes is important for policymakers, service providers, advocates, and others who want to determine whether integration policies and programs are effective. But it is difficult to do. There is no single indicator or set of indicators that demonstrates how well migrants have integrated into their host society or how far along they are in the process. While naturalization can mark immigrants’ full legal and political integration into a country, it may not reflect their sense of belonging in a community.

Integration metrics, therefore, often focus on discrete areas to show how migrants culturally, economically, and socially integrate into their host community. Common indicators measure immigrants’ host-country language competency, educational attainment, economic status, political participation, and civic engagement. Sometimes, these analyses focus on the results of specific integration-focused programs in these areas. More recently, there has been a move to evaluate host societies’ approaches towards migrants by examining government policies regarding access to education, the labor market, and public benefits, as well as rights and protections for migrants and language accommodation, either in terms of ensuring key information is available in migrants’ native language or providing instruction in the host-country language. Local institutions such as schools, civil-society and faith-based organizations, and community groups can be partners in this effort and may also lead the way with initiatives of their own.

While it is not possible to state definitively whether an individual migrant is integrated or not, examining different ways of measuring integration helps to suggest whether and how policies are working, or whether they might be having unintended consequences. By exploring approaches in North America and Europe, this article examines the evolution of metrics for measuring integration over time. It focuses on three dimensions: migrants’ integration into their host society; hosts’ adaptability to new arrivals, as expressed through national and subnational government policies; and a bottom-up approach that examines on-the-ground work of local organizations and governments.

From Assimilation to Integration: The Making of a Two-Way Process

The concept of integration as a framework for understanding newcomers’ experiences evolved over much of the 20th century, and now often views the process as a two-way street in which migrant and host community learn from and adapt to each other. It was preceded by the notion of assimilation, which promoted the view that immigrants alone needed to adapt to their receiving society’s dominant culture by shedding their pre-existing cultural identities to fit into their new community. It was a one-way process that assumed host societies did not learn from or adapt to new arrivals, and did not value the unique experiences, cultures, and knowledge that immigrants bring.

Notably, North America has traditionally relied on more assimilation-focused measures than Europe, where integrationist approaches became more common earlier. This may be due to the regions’ distinctive immigration and settlement histories; North American immigration was initially comprised of European settlers, while European immigration was shaped by its colonial past.

In North America, settler colonization narratives encouraged immigrants and others to assimilate to the dominant European-derived culture. This discourse was prominent during the so-called assimilation era of U.S. policies towards Native Americans, and was typified by the notion of the country as a “melting pot,” in which people of different cultures melded together to lose their pre-existing characteristics and emerge with a new national identity. Discussions pertaining to assimilation developed slightly differently in Europe where immigrants’ assimilation was eventually seen as more contingent on their structural incorporation through labor market access and educational attainment in their host society.

On both sides of the Atlantic, integration practices evolved after World War II and often dovetailed with broader governmental efforts to expand the social safety net and widen civil-rights protections. Policies aimed to help immigrants adapt to their new setting by giving them access to employment as well as essential services such as health care and education. Integration policies were also designed to protect immigrants from discriminatory treatment. Antidiscrimination policies in the United Kingdom were first implemented in the early 1960s and followed the arrival of immigrants from the Commonwealth who encountered racial prejudice.

In the United States, civil-rights measures were among the country’s most important immigrant integration efforts. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on national origin, and a 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act mandated that voting materials appear in languages other than English in communities that needed them. This marked a change in attitude from earlier 20th century efforts to “Americanize” new arrivals.

Unlike assimilation, integration frameworks encourage immigrants to preserve their cultural identities. Practices have reflected host societies’ increased willingness to adapt to demographic change, and the belief that doing so would make host societies stronger. Canada’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism seemed to encapsulate the change in thinking in 1969, when it claimed that “severing” an immigrant from his/her roots “could destroy an aspect of his personality and deprive society of some of the values he can bring to it.”

New Millennium Brings New Focus

In the new millennium, several events encouraged countries to emphasize immigrant integration. Economic and workforce factors were one driving element. For decades, Germany had relied on temporary foreign laborers to power its postwar economy. But skilled migrant workers have only been able to obtain permanent residence since 2005, following the recommendation of the government-appointed Süssmuth Commission. The German government also began funding language and cultural orientation classes covering the German legal system and its history, which were mandatory for some new arrivals, and subsequently eased barriers for migrants to find employment. The onset of the 2015 European migration and refugee crisis prompted the country to pass its first federal integration law, the 2016 Integration Act, which included provisions to help asylum seekers obtain employment and vocational training.

In the years after 9/11, integration efforts also became part of national security objectives to counter violent extremism. Political leaders in Europe worried about rising radicalization among foreign-born communities. A 2012 strategy paper from the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government identified integration of communities as “central to long-term action to counter extremism.” Research funded by the Danish Ministry of Justice highlighted how engaging with Muslim immigrants was vital to curbing radicalization and creating a sense of belonging amongst citizens. Such narratives identified radical Islamism as a result of unsuccessful integration. Consequently, incorporating new arrivals into a broader national culture was seen as necessary for the host society’s own wellbeing as well as the protection of vulnerable populations against extremist ideologies.

In recent decades, multiple scholars, particularly in Europe, have used the concepts of incorporation and inclusion to describe the process by which migrants become members of their host communities. The incorporation framework includes consideration of social attitudes, the formation of ethnic groups, and efforts at advancing multiculturalism beyond government policies. Language about inclusion, meanwhile, has often referred to the two-way nature of the process and encourages host societies to consider recent arrivals as individuals who inherently belong in their new community, rather than people who must be treated with special consideration. 

Still, responsibility for integration has seesawed in different places at different times. For instance, the Netherlands’ 2010 election of Prime Minister Mark Rutte prompted a return to the notion that immigrants’ failure to integrate was a sign of their own deficiencies rather than of Dutch policy. Similarly, following the refugee and migration crisis, public debate in Germany regarding the compatibility of Islam to German Leitkultur (“leading culture”) led to a growing sentiment that Muslim populations could not fully integrate, prompting their marginalization. To address these kinds of tensions, German government officials and Muslim leaders created the Islam Conference to foster dialogue, which resulted in the introduction of Islamic religious classes in some schools and helped inform the creation of Islamic theology institutes for imams. 

Measuring Integration: Immigrants and Societies

Integration is most typically measured in terms of indicators such as immigrants’ host-country language proficiency, employment level, educational attainment, and legal status, which are often based on surveys such as national censuses. While valuable for highlighting broad trends, these data points often disguise meaningful nuances in outcomes among particular groups. They are also limited to measuring features of immigrants themselves, rather than the societies around them.

There has been a broadening, with indicators focusing on efforts by governments and host communities to provide employment access, education, welfare services, and health care. For instance, the existence of policies that require legal documents and other important services to be available in multiple languages can suggest communities’ commitments to integration. In the United States, recipients of federal funds are required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure individuals considered Limited English Proficient (LEP) can access their services. In a similar vein, guidance from the UK General Medical Council encourages practitioners to take all possible efforts to communicate with patients, including by using languages other than English. 

At What Level? Countries and Cities

The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), a global tool assessing 52 countries, is perhaps the most comprehensive measure of immigrant integration policy. MIPEX evaluates eight dimensions of integration policy, including access to the labor market, health care, and nationality, as well as policies focused on antidiscrimination, education, family reunification, permanent residence, and political participation. The 2020 data identified Sweden as the country with the most comprehensive immigrant integration system, with a score of 86 out of 100. Rounding out the top five were Finland, Portugal, Canada, and New Zealand. At the bottom of the list, labeled as allowing “immigration without integration,” were Cyprus, China, Russia, Indonesia, and India.

The topline national rankings do not capture differing integration rates within countries, including between and within cities. For instance, the 2020 MIPEX ranks Spain’s national integration policies as only “slightly favorable” while those of Germany were “halfway favorable.” But Barcelona and Berlin have been widely lauded for their initiatives and are among the more active cities to involve migrants in the process and design of integration policies. City-level initiatives such as these can be largely overlooked in national-level analysis, even though they may have a more meaningful impact on immigrants’ lives. Local institutions are crucial to managing relations between new arrivals and established communities and can better see how national policies are enacted and received.

Researchers have noted that ideological leanings can significantly influence local integration policies, creating a patchwork of different frameworks at a subnational or even subregional level. In 2020, the Quantitative Political Economy Research Group at King’s College London developed a Migrant Acceptance Index based on European Social Survey respondents across Germany. The researchers found that, despite the presence of a national allocation policy for refugees, local attitudes towards immigrants resulted in contrasting levels of social and economic integration at state- and city-level. Thus, considering integration approaches at city level often reveals diverging practices influenced by local trends and attitudes towards immigration that may be missed by larger-level analysis.

Although it is challenging to evaluate integration policies locally, there have been attempts to assess them at the subnational level. Researchers at Canada’s Western University developed the Welcome-Ability Index for Ontario communities, which includes indicators such as employment opportunities, health-care facilities, and attitudes towards immigrants derived from survey data. Their 2013 study indicates that interactions between host communities and immigrant newcomers, paired with supportive policies, provided strong foundations for integration.

Budgetary plans can indicate countries’ long-term interest to invest in immigrant integration and to make connections between national- and city-level policies. In Europe, the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027 suggests countries provide financial and technical support to integration through coordinating action and establishing partnerships with civil-society groups, educational institutions, youth and student organizations, religious communities, and migrants to sustain a comprehensive integration policy that is sensitive to local and national needs.

Still, it is difficult to precisely capture the efforts taken by local communities to support new arrivals, in part because they can vary so much in dimensions such as size and scope. While serving important roles, these types of initiatives can be difficult to quantify and compare across cases.

Counting Laws and Leaders

These examples make clear that immigrant integration practices and policies remain difficult to measure, particularly quantitatively. Still, simple numerical data on individual immigrants’ successes can suggest something about their host societies’ social, economic, and political receptivity to immigrants.

For instance, in the United States, approximately 11 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were immigrants as of 2020, as were 3 percent of members of Congress with voting abilities in 2021. These numbers are smaller than immigrants’ share of the U.S. population as a whole: 14 percent. Similarly, the European Network of Cities for Local Integration Policies for Migrants (CLIP), a now-defunct group of 30 cities, conducted research on the proportion of city staff who were born abroad—in all cases where data were available, migrants comprised a smaller share than their population in the city.

At times, organizations and local governments have actively sought to boost immigrants’ representation in prominent positions. Initiatives such as Berlin’s State Advisory Board on Migration and Integration and the Migrant Integration Council of Athens have put migrant representatives in consultative roles and encouraged active policy discussions between immigrant and native populations.

An Opening for Future Metrics of Immigrant Integration

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a renewed focus on immigrants, their role in society, and the deep-seated barriers that often limit their integration. Despite immigrants’ common presence in essential sectors of the economy, the move to remote schooling, work, and health care posed problems, particularly to immigrants with lower levels of digital literacy and limited connections to established institutions. Officials in many jurisdictions have turned to innovative policies and practices to stay engaged with immigrants and others who are isolated and vulnerable. However, further research will be necessary to determine their reach and effectiveness.

The long-term impacts of the public-health crisis remain unknown. Previous frameworks for understanding and promoting immigrant integration may no longer be fully relevant and may need to be retooled as international travel remains restricted, services are offered at a distance, and other impacts of the pandemic persist. More than ever, there is an opportunity to review and re-evaluate the interactions between immigrants and native-born communities. This engagement can help develop new approaches that indicate which policies and practices are most effective in building cohesive communities.

Understanding the conceptual changes of immigrant integration helps researchers understand how policies and immigrants’ experiences have adapted. Immigrants’ rates of literacy, employment, or naturalization offer some insights into their situations and can reflect some outcomes, but it is also important to examine national policies and initiatives led by local institutions. Indicators that track engagement by community-based organizations and other groups that enable migrants to access services more easily can complement top-level demographic data. Taken together, these metrics provide a more comprehensive analysis of immigrant integration.

Experience to date indicates that successful immigrant integration results from the two-fold responsibility of immigrants and their host societies. Collecting appropriate data to capture these processes is a continuing challenge.


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