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.
European countries also struggle with a tide of undocumented immigrants and how to integrate existing immigrant and minority groups into their larger societies. But a more contentious question is whether immigrant families who have lived in Europe for years, or even generations, are entitled to citizenship. In many European countries, citizenship has historically been about bloodlines and ethnic heritage, not location at birth.
Fortunately, both the United States and European Union are working to develop new federal and supranational policies to address integration. The recent election of a biracial U.S. president, and the discussions it has generated around the world regarding minorities in Western societies, offers a particularly unique opportunity for the United States and Europe to more seriously examine what each side of the Atlantic can learn from the other.
The Obama administration should emulate the European Union’s model in creating highly structured, institutionalized programs for integration, which work to harmonize and monitor practices within the E.U. and create a common vision of what integration policy should look like across the E.U. To this end, the administration should signal a national commitment to improve integration through a more robust effort at the federal level. The president should establish a National Office of Integration in the White House to coordinate between the various U.S. departments and agencies that are tasked with addressing socioeconomic hardships and lingering discriminatory practices, which are barriers to effective integration for both new immigrants and other minority groups.
Our European counterparts, on the other hand, should use the United States as a model for putting greater emphasis on helping member states strengthen anti-discrimination laws, enforcing existing regulations, and having a more inclusive sense of citizenship and identity. The European Union should work to translate its common vision for integration into more enforceable national legislation at the state level. It should also institute programs to better assess progress toward integration. Europe’s resistance to collecting racial and ethnic data, while conducted out of an expressed desire to craft “colorblind” policies, ultimately serves to obscure the needs of immigrant populations and their difficulties integrating into the majority society.
At this moment of renewed optimism about the transatlantic partnership, let’s not forget that developing effective integration tools should be a joint transatlantic endeavor.
Spencer P. Boyer is the director of international law and diplomacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.