Francis Fukuyama: America Is an "Assimilation Powerhouse"

Roundup: Historians' Take

Francis Fukuyama, writing in the WSJ (Jan. 26, 2003):

We have seen demonstrations all over Europe and the Middle East to protest the French government's proposed prohibition of Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. This ban is part of a larger struggle taking place throughout Europe over the continent's cultural identity. France and other European countries are host to Muslim minorities that constitute upward of 10% of their populations, minorities that are becoming increasingly active politically. European Muslims are primarily responsible for the rise in anti-Semitic incidents over the past three years, and their perceptions heavily color European media reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This demographic shift has already affected foreign policy: the French government's stance against the Iraq war and U.S. foreign policy more generally seeks in part to appease Muslim opinion.

But while the French government is publicly supportive of Arab causes, it and other European governments are privately worried about future trends. Sept. 11 revealed that assimilation is working very poorly in much of Europe: terrorist ringleaders like Mohamed Atta were radicalized not in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, but in Western Europe. In a revealing incident that took place shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a crowd of mostly second- and third-generation French North Africans booed the Marseillaise during a soccer match between the French and Algerian national teams and chanted Osama bin Laden's name. Third-generation British Muslims have traveled to the West Bank to martyr themselves in suicide operations.

Americans, looking at Europe, should be glad that they have made their country an assimilation powerhouse. But as the authors of a new volume on assimilation edited by Tamar Jacoby indicate, this is not something that we can take for granted. During the big immigration wave of the late-19th/early-20th centuries, the largely Protestant native-born elites deliberately sought to use the public school system to assimilate the newcomers from southern and eastern Europe to their cultural values. The 1960s and '70s gave rise to multiculturalism, affirmative action, and bilingualism, which sought to reverse course on assimilation. The '90s saw a backlash against this kind of divisive identity politics with the passage of Proposition 227 in California that wiped out public school bilingual programs at a stroke. This was our version of the headscarf ban, one that worked well because it was supported by a great many Hispanic parents themselves who felt their children were being held back in a Spanish language ghetto.

It is in this context that we should evaluate President Bush's recent proposal to grant illegal aliens work permits. Many Americans dislike the policy because it rewards breaking the law. This is all true; we should indeed use our newly invigorated controls over foreign nationals to channel future immigrants into strictly legal channels. But since we are not about to expel the nearly seven million people potentially eligible for this program, we need to consider what policies would lead to their most rapid integration into mainstream American society. For the vast majority of illegal aliens, the law they broke on entering the country is likely to be the only important one they will ever violate, and the sooner they can normalize their status, the faster their children are likely to participate fully in American life.

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