Immigration and Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Diversity

Racial and cultural issues loom large in immigration. Anti-immigrant groups that purport to be "colorblind" because they focus on economic and environmental issues, actually exploit racial and ethnic stereotypes (about crime, fertility rates, wasteful consumption) to argue against immigration. Pro-assimilation groups argue that they are only advocating for immigrants to adapt to their new home. Yet they maintain a narrow definition of what it means to be "American" and require that immigrants quickly learn English and uncritically take on the values of a dominant culture. Both these types of groups discount that racism poses an obstacle for many immigrants. A smaller number of organizations argue that non-White immigrants pose a threat to the nation, which they explicitly define as White, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian.

Even though racism is a factor in most anti-immigrant sentiment, it is important to distinguish explicitly White supremacist arguments from assertions by groups that claim to be racially neutral. These groups do not create tension out of thin air; they depend on the embedded bigotry of a community as a whole. The community's attitudes also must be addressed in a sensitive manner. Using terms like "hate group," "racist," or "fringe" to describe all anti-immigrant groups tends to polarize debates and alienate people who feel they have legitimate concerns about immigration. A more effective way to reach these people is by carefully dissecting the opposition's analysis. This includes pointing out the misconceptions and resentments the opposition exploits and responding to the valid community concerns the opposition claims to address.

Multiculturalism and Ethnic Conflict

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Many anti-immigrant groups avoid discussing the racial composition of immigrants, but veil such references in the seemingly neutral concern over "ethnic conflict":

  • Immigrants are eroding the unifying values of the United States (such as individual rights, equality, rule of law, work ethic, morality and self-government).
  • These values are connected to Anglo-Saxon roots. The 85 percent of current immigrants who are non-European do not understand these values.
  • The United States should return to race-conscious immigration quotas. It was a mistake to end quotas favoring northern and western European immigrants.
  • Multiculturalism is to blame for endorsing conflicting values and identities and diluting "American values."
  • U.S. society is increasingly "balkanized" or fragmented into competing ethnic enclaves.
  • Competition between Whites, immigrants and nonimmigrant people of color living in the same communities will lead to violence. For example, there were such conflicts in the 1990s between Korean storeowners and African Americans in Los Angeles.
  • The September 11 attacks were an example of a large-scale interethnic clash, perpetuated by an internal minority whose values opposed "American values."

Examples: Glaister A. Elmer and Evelyn E. Elmer. (1988). Ethnic Conflict Abroad: Clues to America's Future. Monterey, VA: American Immigration Control Foundation; Lawrence Auster. (1990). The Path to National Suicide: An Essay on Immigration and Multiculturalism. Monterey, VA: American Immigration Control Foundation.


The United States is already (and has always been) a multicultural society. In fact this continent was made up of many different indigenous cultures even before the arrival of the Europeans. The first African Americans were forcibly brought to the colonies in 1619. Chinese immigrants came in the mid-19th century to work on the railroads. Large numbers of Mexicans were living on land annexed by the United States from Mexico in 1848. Today people of color are a majority in many large cities and in the state of California.

Even when most recent immigrants were of European descent there was interethnic tension and competition, stemming from real or perceived inequalities. For example, Irish immigrants were seen as not loyal to the country because of their Catholicism and were explicitly discriminated against in employment. The Right's solution of restricting immigration does not deal with the present reality of diverse cultures in the United States. It also ignores racism experienced by all people of color, including Native Americans, as a significant factor in this problem.

When the Right blames multiculturalism for increased tensions between different communities, it reinforces people's resentment of other ethnic groups and adds to these tensions. It also ignores the root causes of the tension, such as perceived and real injustices. Multiculturalism seeks to reduce tensions by teaching values that support diversity and acknowledge the contributions of all communities. Other programs, such as affirmative action and redistricting to create "majority-minority" districts, are created to counter institutional racism. The Right has consistently opposed these programs. Ultimately, the Right takes advantage of racist sentiments to drive wedges between various communities and to garner support for their goal of restricting immigration.


What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Anti-immigrant groups claim that today's immigrants are not assimilating in a timely manner like past immigrants did, because they are not like past immigrants:

  • New immigrants are increasingly non-European and do not have the same education level or values as previous immigrant groups.
  • Many immigrants come from Spanish-speaking countries and live in concentrated "ethnic ghettos" where they have little reason to learn English and little exposure to mainstream U.S. culture and traditions.
  • Immigrants are maintaining stronger ties to their home countries through dual citizenship and so are not loyal to the United States.

These groups also say that immigrants are no longer assimilating because the United States has changed:

  • The United States now provides new immigrants a whole range of social services that discourage immigrants from supporting themselves, learning English or becoming productive members of society.
  • Multicultural school curricula encourage immigrant children to value minority cultures, while denigrating U.S. culture, and discouraging the adoption of "American values."
  • The focus has shifted away from "assimilation" and "Americanization" to "diversity" and "multiculturalism."

Some of these groups express no concern about immigration levels and only focus on the issue of cultural assimilation. Others conclude that a moratorium on immigration is necessary to allow time for the United States to "digest" earlier immigrant waves before new immigrants arrive.

Examples: Linda Chavez. (1991). Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. USA: BasicBooks, HarperCollins; American Enterprise. (2000). See December issue generally, including following articles: "Does America Have an Assimilation Problem?" by Michael Barone and John Fonte, and "Our New Immigration Predicament," by Steven Camarota (of the Center for Immigration Studies).


New immigrants have always had a dynamic relationship to U.S. society, adapting to its diverse cultures and values, just as the society adapts to the immigrants, their traditions and perspectives. Immigrants who live in ethnic enclaves do so as a result of a complex set of factors. Immigrants face discrimination and lack of opportunities outside these areas. Within these areas they have connections to a community and to jobs and housing (albeit often substandard). Immigrant communities who were eventually seen as White, such as the Irish or Jews, were able to leave these enclaves. Others continue to face racism that keeps them segregated. The Right exposes its racism by rarely criticizing Whites when they participate in self-segregation and live in all-White areas.

Many social services the Right attacks were created to ease immigrants' difficult transitions into new surroundings and to relieve tensions between various communities. Multilingual services increase first generation immigrants' independence and ability to advocate for themselves. Despite popular conceptions, most public benefits are not available to most recent immigrants. For immigrants who do qualify, these benefits provide a safety net for the most needy, helping to prevent abject poverty. Multiculturalism is intended to increase the understanding of the diversity already present in the United States by recognizing the positive contributions of different immigrant and non-immigrant communities.

"Assimilation" is a nebulous concept which different pro-assimilation advocates have attempted to define. One conservative commentator defines it as pride in "American identity," and adoption of a "Protestant ethic," of being "self-reliant, hardworking, and morally upright."1 An immigrant advocacy group defines assimilation as accepting the values of equality under law, due process and economic opportunity, while maintaining one's ethnic identity. In measuring assimilation, though, it looked at English language acquisition, home ownership, and citizenship rates.2

When standards are subjective, such as pride in "American identity," people of color must subscribe uncritically to the dominant views and are under greater scrutiny. For example, after September 11 Arab- and Muslim-Americans were called on to prove their loyalty. Economic and linguistic indicators are more quantifiable. However, the focus on assimilation ignores how discrimination closes off opportunities to many immigrants, forcing them into segregated communities, denying them quality education, and keeping them economically disadvantaged. The dismantling or defunding of affirmative action, bilingual education and English language programs poses a significant obstacle to the economic and linguistic integration of new immigrants. It also impedes their access to equal opportunity and economic justice.

There have been many thoughtful critiques of the concept of assimilation and the "melting pot." New metaphors have emerged that emphasize diversity along with harmony, such as the salad bowl or the mosaic. These new conceptions allows for the existence of ethnic groups like the Amish and Hassidic Jews, who have attempted to preserve their unique cultures by resisting assimilation, while living peacefully alongside other communities. Most anti-immigrant and pro-assimilation groups oppose these conceptions of the United States as a diverse and tolerant society, especially when those seeking to hold on to their cultures are people of color.

Official English

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Many anti-immigrant groups advocate for federal and state laws declaring English the official language of the United States. They seek to outlaw multilingual ballots and drivers' tests, and prevent government officials from providing services in languages other than English. They say that:

  • Self-interested politicians and "professional" civil rights advocates are trying to keep immigrants vulnerable by preventing them from learning English.
  • Groups promoting official English are the true immigrant advocates, helping immigrants learn English, the "language of opportunity."
  • It is important to defend English as the national linguistic heritage.
  • Multilingualism will lead to fragmentation and conflict. English is what bound together past generations of immigrants and made them into "Americans."
  • Civil rights advocates are attempting to make refusal to speak English a "civil right," which would force employers to fill "quotas" of non-English speakers.
  • As a result of the multitude of languages immigrants speak, English speakers are beginning to feel like "strangers in their own country."

Example: U.S. English advertisements, available on their website, (Also on file at PRA.)


There is no danger of English losing dominance within the United States. Over 90 percent of the population speaks English exclusively or very well (based on 1990 Census figures and factoring in undocumented immigrants).3 Immigrants to the United States are learning English as quickly today as they have in the past. 76 percent of first-generation immigrants speak English "well" or "very well" within ten years of arrival.4 Almost all second-generation immigrants are fully fluent in English. By the third generation fluency in the language of origin is extremely rare.5

In fact, there is much more reason to be concerned about the rapid loss of immigrants' languages of origin. Multilingualism is a valuable resources given the increasing economic and cultural ties between different nations. In fact, many native-born English speakers are seeking to learn second and third languages to assist them in their work and travel. Studies show that fluent bilinguals do better in all aspects of their academic performance. In many countries, such as India, Germany and Holland, children are taught multiple languages in school or at home and become highly fluent in more than one language.

Offering government services in multiple languages does not prevent immigrants from learning English. Multilingual services merely allow first generation immigrants to advocate for themselves by gaining access to the political system and services to which they are fully entitled. English language acquisition is still essential to holding many jobs and participating in many aspects of society. Indeed, the demand for English language classes outstrips the availability in many immigrant communities.

Bilingual Education

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Some groups oppose bilingual education programs and have successfully dismantled such programs in various states. They say:

  • Students in bilingual education are faring much worse than students in English immersion programs.
  • Bilingual education programs prevent children from learning English and stifle children's education in other subjects.
  • Immigrant children are being denied the opportunity to learn English and integrate into U.S. society.
  • Taxpayers are footing the bill and supporters of bilingual education (teachers, administrators and civil rights advocates) are profiting from this costly industry.

Example: See website of English for the Children, headed by Ron Unz, at


Bilingual education programs in fact facilitate English language acquisition. They do so by ensuring that the child has a solid foundation in her first language and subject-specific material while learning English. The child's ability to read and write in her first language and her subject-specific knowledge will make the transition to English classes easier. This knowledge, once acquired, is easily transferred from one language to another.

Studies have found that, all things being equal, bilingual education programs produce better results than English immersion programs. Reports from California, that after severe restrictions were placed on bilingual education test scores increased, proved to be false. Stephan Krashen points out that test scores increase each year after a new test is introduced, as was the case in California. Test scores increased in districts that kept bilingual education programs also. He also points to evidence of selective testing, where low-scoring children were excluded. Furthermore, the most publicized results were from a district that had abandoned a Spanish-only program, not a bilingual education program. In fact, in Arizona, students in bilingual education scored better on English reading tests for three years in a row than those in English immersion programs.6

Though critics of bilingual education claim to be advocating in the best interest of children, they are actually fueling anti-immigrant sentiment. They create the perception that immigrants and their advocates are seeking unnecessary and costly special programs that seek to prevent English language acquisition. They also help to dismantle programs and create a cultural climate that leads to immigrants losing their languages of origin. These languages are valuable resources for immigrants and the society at large.

End Notes

1. Peter Salins, Assimilation, American Style, (New York: Basic Books, 1996). Peter Salins is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation. The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank, which has sponsored the work of anti-affirmative action, antibilingual education scholars such as Linda Chavez and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom.

2. Gregory Rodriguez, From Newcomers to New Americans: The Successful Integration of Immigrants into American Society, (Washington, DC: National Immigration Forum, 1999).

3. United States Census Bureau, "Table 1: Language Use and English Ability, Persons 5 Years and Over, by State: 1990 Census," 1990 Census of Population, CPHL-96. (January 10, 2002). The data indicate that 86 percent speak English only, 94 percent speak it exclusively or very well, and 97 percent speak it exclusively, very well or well. Even if this census did not count (a high estimate of) 10 million undocumented immigrants and assuming that none of them speak English exclusively or very well, still 90% of the population would speak English exclusively or very well.

4. Rodriguez, op.cit., 19.

5. Alejandro Portes and Lingxin Ho, "E Pluribus Unum: Bilingualism and Language Loss in the Second Generation," Working Paper No. 229 presented at the symposium on the second generation, sponsored by the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Oct. 23-25, 1997.

6. Stephen Krashen, "Bilingual Education Works," Rethinking Schools, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter, 2000/2001).

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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