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Exploring Nuanced Understandings of Immigrant Integration

by Shahinaz Geneid

Seek & Swoon

In the present day, the question of migrant “integration” or “assimilation” is the cause of great controversy, with the perception that migrants are in some way failing to integrate into their receiving countries and are at the root of various prevailing societal ills in spite of contrary evidence. With the large influx of Syrian and other migrants from the broader MENA region into Western European countries, for example, animosity has risen and the questions of belonging and assimilation have been at the forefront of these tensions.

Particularly in Germany, which has adopted a policy under Angela Merkel of “‘Willkommenskultur,’ or culture of welcoming,” accepting as many as 62,000 asylum seekers per month in 2016, the question of whether or not to accept migrants has “nearly collapsed” the German government, as well as Merkel’s formerly well-established coalition in the Bundestag between the Christian Social Union (her own party) and the Social Democrats.

With this controversy so salient presently, it is appropriate to question firstly where the current ideas and conceptions regarding immigrants and assimilation originate from and secondly, what standards should be examined to ensure positive integration into receiving societies and to lessen the present tide of misinformation and xenophobia against migrant communities. As such, I will move towards discussing different theoretical understandings of how immigrants integrate into society: the traditional “melting pot” and “mosaic” models, theories regarding the relationship between the development of the nation-state in the Western world and the economic disenfranchisement of postcolonial countries, and lastly, the “citizenship rights” model.

Melting Pot and Mosaic

One highly contested set of frameworks through which to examine immigrant integration are the “melting pot” and “mosaic” conceptualizations. The two models, as presented by theorist Howard Palmer, have developed largely out of the study of immigrant groups in the United States (melting pot) and Canada (mosaic).

The idea of the melting pot envisions a society wherein “peoples of diverse origins have allegedly fused to make a new people,” whereas the mosaic model instead imagines the development of a multicultural society wherein “different ethnic groups have maintained their distinctiveness while functioning as part of the whole.”

However, Palmer qualifies the potentially-appealing and simple understanding of each model with the warning that in the two societies studied as models of these phenomena, neither framework has existed in practice without necessitating some form of what he refers to as “Anglo-conformity” in the United States and parts of Canada, and “Franco-conformity” in French Canada. He goes on to describe how, particularly in the melting pot model in the United States, “the melting pot did not always melt” in that “non-whites were usually excluded, at both the levels of social attitudes and social reality,” with even the comparatively multicultural example of the mosaic model, Canada, having not escaped this same problem.

What these earlier frameworks of integration do provide, however, is the question of how migrants adapt to their receiving societies. It is clear that the answer must be more complex than simply that they assimilate completely into a melting pot society or exist as unchanged micro-communities in a mosaic multicultural society, and that the question of conformity, specifically conformity into some abstract notion of “whiteness” and racial-ethnic identity, is also at the heart of the issue of integration in the Western context.

The Nation-State and Postcolonial Theory

Continuing to branch off from this different perspective on immigrant adaptation, I wish to move to a postcolonial understanding based on more complex imaginings of interactions between the nation-state and ethnic identities. Edward Said identified the principle problem of the nation-state and nationalism as “the problem of the ‘other.’”

Specifically, the nation-state fails where it fails to extend “forms of democracy and citizenship” to the whole community, as well as where it fails to address what Said refers to as the problem of the “national minority”. He principally calls for “difference without domination” and “difference without repression,” something that for me seems to be at the core of the present conflict over migration and connects to the problems Palmer finds with the melting pot and mosaic models of integration. In order to preserve state power, the nation-state relies heavily on this construction of a “nation” and common identity, and as such, the presence of an “other” in the form of an immigrant presence is a threat to this construction of nationhood and statehood.

Citizenship Rights

A relatively new and markedly different lens that aims to move past limited understandings of immigrant adaptation that attempt to enforce forms of ethnic or cultural conformity upon the immigrant population is presented by Irene Bloemraad and others, who attempt to explicitly define citizenship and thus to determine a manner in which to ascribe rights to and include immigrants in the conceptualization of “citizenship”.

Their model defines citizenship as a four-part concept that includes “legal status, rights, political and other forms of participation in society, and a sense of belonging.” This framework of citizenship, the state, “allows us to analyze the extent to which immigrants and their descendants are incorporated into receiving societies.”

These authors examine the way immigration calls into question traditional notions of citizenship as it “challenges — and in some cases reaffirms — notions of national identity,” yet demonstrates that the “presumed chasm separating multicultural and assimilatory accounts of citizenship may be overdrawn.” Immigrant practices in the spaces they inhabit bring into question traditional notions of citizenship as defined in relation to the nation-state in this way. As such, citizenship becomes a critical lens through which to view immigrant incorporation, as the extent to which immigrants and their descendants achieve legal status, rights, participation, and a sense of belonging are important markers by which to measure incorporation.

Ultimately, elements of all of the above frameworks are visible in the present ideological and political struggle between those for and against migration. Understanding them may allow us to develop more educated perspectives on the topic, and to understand that integration is not a zero-sum game of either total assimilation or none at all, but a multi-faceted process wherein various realities manifest as immigrants adapt to their receiving societies, and that there are a range of legal, historical, political, and social factors behind these realities.



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