CHICAGO – Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the death of German multiculturalism at a conference of her political party, the Christian Democratic Union, last weekend. She said the very idea that guest workers who immigrated to Germany to fill a labor shortage during the 1960s could “live happily side by side” with native-born Germans was an illusion and suggested a hard line for those who refuse to assimilate.
The whole thing reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s lament about German immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania. They didn’t speak English and therefore couldn’t be addressed “either from the press or the pulpit,” and he feared that their keeping to themselves would mean they’d never join the mainstream. Franklin even supported several schemes designed to dilute the Germans’ influence in the colony founded by William Penn to provide freedom of worship and religion.
Just as we in the U.S. struggle with the idea of how to define and proliferate “American culture” in the context of how to reform our clunky, sometimes laughably unjust immigration laws, other countries are dealing with similar issues brought into stark relief by the crippling global economic downturn.
Whether it’s Turks in Germany, Filipinos in Israel, or North Africans in France, it is time countries embrace the reality that the mobility ignited by our global economies will never end. Rather, they – like the U.S. – must formulate a plan for assimilating immigrants or suffer continued discord.
That’s why Merkel may be on to something. Multiculturalism – the idea that several different cultures can coexist equally and equitably in a single country – has always sounded a little too “separate, but equal” for my taste.
While the United States is far from a perfect example of complete brotherly love with recent immigrants – and the Great Recession has brought out the nativism in many – we come really close. That’s because we remain devoted to the American mythology of being a nation of immigrants that has always assimilated into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. We have a steadfast expectation that newcomers will become one of “us,” not stay one of “them.”
The fear of “otherness” is what unites Germany’s sharp conservative turn, Franklin’s angst about the Germans, and U.S. worries about immigrants from Latin America: a large group of foreign newcomers who are united by language and similarities in culture have the luxury of taking respite in each other rather than jumping into their new world.
By its own account, Germany has done little to foster the civic participation of its new residents, who were allowed into the country to combat a rapidly aging population and low birth rates among those in their child-bearing years. Polls have shown that more and more Germans fear that too many foreigners live in insular clusters with little or no connection to the mainstream culture.
The raft of “English-only” and enforcement measures that municipalities across the U.S. are trying to enact seem motivated by the fear that “they” are taking “us” over.
Both Germany and the U.S. ask that new citizens be able to speak the language, and pass a test, but neither country has nationwide standards or programs for welcoming newcomers who may or may not be interested in being more than legal permanent residents. This should change.
The word “assimilation” has always carried negative connotations – even Franklin disagreed with some of his fellow Pennsylvanians who called for banning the importation of books in German and a scheme to encourage government-subsidized intermarriage. But support for the newest members of communities is needed.
Reforming U.S. immigration laws promises to continue at the forefront of our national conversation. But how we stir all our immigrants into the melting pot is as important a part of any comprehensive plan as determining specific rules under which illegal immigrants can stay or must return home. Embracing the challenge of helping newcomers more easily become “us” is still, as it has been for most of our history, our great American opportunity.
This is Esther Cepeda’s first column for the Writers Group. Esther Cepeda’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.