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Immigration as a Two-Way Street: Beyond the Melting Pot

Integration of immigrants to the United States is a vibrant, dynamic process that involves not just immigrants but receiving communities, public institutions and private organizations.

Millions of immigrants begin their new American lives in cities. Since the 19th century, immigrants have propelled the rapid growth both of American coastal cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, and their interior counterparts, including Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City. For most immigrants, settling in large cities allows them to build enclaves with fellow newcomers who speak the same language, enjoy similar customs and practice the same religion. These enclaves have often been located near jobs that attracted immigrants.

Although immigrants by the thousands still settle in large cities like Los Angeles, a growing number of immigrants instead choose smaller U.S. cities, suburbs and rural communities. In general, these new settlement patterns reflect the availability of jobs, but they also reflect the availability of affordable housing and good schools.

Immigration to smaller U.S. cities and rural areas is bringing new population and economic and cultural renewal to many regions of the country. But it also brings challenges for both the newcomers and established residents. One metaphor that is often used to describe the United States is the “Great Melting Pot.” This refers to the fusing of many different cultures, languages and religions to form one national identity. However, the “melting pot” notion is too simple. The process of transforming a country of many immigrants into a nation has often been slow and complex.

When many people talk about immigration they use the word “assimilation” to describe how previous generations of newcomers became part of American society and thus played their part in the “melting pot.” But the term “assimilation” often misleads. First, it assumes that many of our immigrant ancestors quickly and willingly changed their cultural practices and spoke English. In fact, history shows us that many immigrant communities remained distinct for generations. Secondly, insisting on the assimilation of newcomers assumes that their integration is a one-way process in which only the newcomers make changes in lifestyle, cultural practices and language. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Integration of immigrants to the United States is a vibrant, dynamic process that involves not just immigrants but receiving communities, public institutions and private organizations. It is true that newcomers must learn English, and come to understand American lifestyles and cultural practices, and must find jobs. These adjustments can be very difficult and can take several years, if not decades, particularly for those who lack job skills readily transferred to U.S. workplaces and for whom learning English is difficult.

Established residents and their institutions also are responsible for integrating immigrants. “Accommodation” is probably the best way to describe the give-and-take. Schools, for example, provide interpreters to communicate with newcomer parents. Law enforcement officials learn about newcomer populations through cultural competency training. Individual citizens also help by tutoring newcomers in English and orienting them to local resources. A growing number of U.S. workplaces make reasonable accommodations for newcomers’ religious needs as long as safety is not compromised.

Recognizing and managing expectations on the part of newcomers and citizens alike also is important. Immigrant newcomers cannot be expected to learn English overnight or “assimilate” and adopt American customs and lifestyles in a few short weeks. Immigrants are certainly transformed by settling in the United States, but their new communities are transformed as well.

Debates and social tension about immigration in the United States often reflect unrealistic expectations that newcomers will swiftly learn and speak English. These expectations often underestimate how long it takes to learn English, especially for adults. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often expressed with complaints about immigrants who “refuse to learn English” or about bilingual signs in stores and hospitals. Despite these social and political tensions, debate—and rancor—about immigration are neither new nor impossible to work through. Similar debates have come and gone throughout U.S. history. They usually reflected broad changes in the economy and job markets.

Over the course of U.S. history, immigrants’ countries of origin have changed along with the languages, customs and cultures they bring. Today’s immigrants face the same challenges as earlier newcomers in adapting to U.S. society and culture. And some U.S. citizens evince the same negative attitudes toward immigrants that their own immigrant ancestors encountered. Yet, despite the reciprocal challenges of adaptation and integration, immigrants continue to seek better lives in the United States, and U.S. society continues to be transformed.


Mark A. Grey is a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration. He is also lead author of “Postville USA: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America.”