The New Integration Crusade

Integration is now a global issue, and the U.S. has as much to say about it as anyone, and, maybe, as much to learn.

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The Obama administration has signaled its intention to begin discussions on comprehensive immigration reform over the coming year; crucial to that debate will be the sister issue of integration.

While most Americans agree that properly integrating immigrant groups is an important objective, few know exactly what “integration” means or how to achieve it. The old debates about multiculturalism versus assimilation have largely lost their relevance due to changing political realities and social developments. While there’s not one definition everyone agrees upon, successful integration should at least include the spread of educational and economic mobility, social inclusion and equal opportunity for newcomers and minorities into the mainstream of a society.

The United States is a country largely shaped by immigration, but we don’t have formal “integration” policies. The federal government, of course, has exclusive authority to admit and deport people through its control over immigration policy. In practice, however, the responsibility of integration has historically been shared by state and local governments. The result has been an ineffective hodgepodge of programs that have too often focused on bilingual education for children to the exclusion of other initiatives.

While the United States and Europe share information in many policy areas, integration isn’t one of them. This is unfortunate. Despite our different views on and approaches to integration, derived from unique historical experiences, the United States and Europe could learn a great deal from each other as they tackle one of the more important challenges of the 21st century together.

With so many crises on the table in both the United States and Europe, why should this be a priority? The implications of poor integration are many. Preventing the alienation, resentment and potential backlash that often comes when immigrant groups are excluded from the societal benefits others enjoy are concerns for both the United States and Europe. At a moment when radical groups are increasing their efforts to recruit the disenfranchised in Europe, and may potentially do so as well in the United States, these concerns are particularly relevant.

In addition, countries that fail to take full advantage of diversity do so at their own economic peril. This will be particularly pertinent for Western and Northern Europe in the years to come, given the challenges they will face with aging workforces and too few taxpayers to support generous social programs. The United States could encounter similar problems with the upcoming retirement of the Baby Boom generation. In the end, countries that know how to harness the power of diversity are likely to be more successful than those who fight against it.

Although the United States and Europe share many of the same risks, there are distinct differences in how our societies look at these issues. Debates within the United States often focus on the proper pathways to legal residency and how best to integrate immigrant groups. However, there is an expectation among Americans of all backgrounds that most legal immigrants will one day be able to become American citizens. Very few Americans question the right of a child born in the United States to be a U.S. citizen; most of our tensions surface over how to stop the flows of undocumented immigrants from the south.