Assimilation, Integration and Refugees

What factors should the government use as it considers allowing refugees to enter the country?

A directive from the Trump administration suggests that alongside humanitarian concerns, refugees hoping to be admitted to the United States should meet “certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution in the United States.” The choice of the word assimilation, as compared to integration, raises questions for many refugee advocates. Reporters at PRI explain, “The previous language in refugee guidelines talked about the need for “integration” of refugees. That implies a joining of cultures, says [Foreign Policy Columnist Lauren] Wolfe. “You can keep your own language and religion,” she says.

One definition of assimilation is “the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted,” others, like Wolfe, worry that assimilation implies giving up one’s culture to blend in with the dominant society. This contrasts with integration, which of often understood as a two-way process. In a blog for Re-Imagining Migration, sociologist Mary Waters, the chair of a 2015 National Academy of Science report on the integration of immigrants in the United States explains,

“The NAS panel defined integration as the opportunities for immigrants and their descendants to achieve their goals in a society through participation in major social institutions as well as to gain social acceptance. Greater integration implies parity of critical life chances with the native-born American majority. Integration is a two-fold process: it happens both because immigrants experience change once they get here and because native-born Americans change in response to immigration.”

Listen to “Refugees to be assessed on ability to ‘assimilate'” from PRI’s The World and their series, “Global Nation” to learn more.

Reflection Questions

As you listen to Lauren Wolfe, what concerns does she have about the recent presidential directive? How might people from the administration respond?

What does it mean to assimilate? What does it mean to integrate? What are the differences between the two?

How would you assess the ability of a person to assimilate? How would you assess the ability of a person to integrate?

Recognizing that all of us carry implicit biases, is it possible to create a fair standard to judge people’s abilities to assimilate and to integrate? If so, what practices might need to be included to prevent bias from influencing the decision-making process?

What is a refugee? Research the 1951 refugee convention to better understand the definition of refugees and the obligations of nations that signed on to the convention.What role should religion, language ability, culture, and nationality play in US refugee policy? What role should it play in immigration policy?

If you could speak to the author of the presidential directive, what would you say? What would you want them to know?

If you could speak to Wolfe, what would you want to say? What questions might you ask?