When Those Who Immigrate Don’t Assimilate

The current political row on Capitol Hill and in California about immigration policy notwithstanding, Europeans look with admiration and envy at American society’s ability to absorb people from all over the world. And though they might be loath to concede the point to Americans, a fair number of Europeans would admit that Europe’s poor record in assimilating its mostly Muslim immigrant population fosters radicalism and thus contributes to the threat of global terrorism.

But rather than berating Europeans for their failure to assimilate immigrants, Americans would do well to learn from what is happening across the Atlantic. In the post-September 11 world, the day may not be so far off when Americans will wake up to find Islamist terrorists in their midst, as Europe has over the last two years.

Unlike the September 11 hijackers, who entered the United States for the sole purpose of committing their ghastly deeds, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London came from Europe’s immigrant population. The London bombers were the children of fairly successful Pakistani immigrants who in theory should have long ago joined the economic and social mainstream.

Had they been in the United States, they probably would have been for the most part assimilated. Young Latinos in Florida, Texas or the Southwest may on average be poorer and less educated than their Caucasian peers, but there is little doubt that they very much regard themselves as Americans.

The same cannot be said across the Atlantic. Simply put, European societies are failing their second- and third-generation immigrants. The Turks and North Africans who moved to France, Belgium or Germany a generation ago to take up menial jobs are today often out of work. Their children grow up with extremely poor job prospects, and learn to be dependent on welfare. Many feel discriminated against, and alienated from society at large.

Such is the experience for far too many immigrants, regardless of whether they live in countries like Germany, where there are huge hurdles to naturalization, or France, where everyone born on French soil is considered to be a citizen. After France was convulsed last year by rioting youth, experts across the continent hastened to point out why conditions in that country made it a singular case.

Yet even in the Netherlands, which has long prided itself on its tolerance and multiculturalism, integration has largely failed. The murderer of provocative filmmaker Theo van Gogh was born in Amsterdam to Moroccan parents. On paper, at least, he looked like a model citizen.

The causes of integration failure are manifold. Unlike the United States and Canada, European societies were never explicitly open for immigration.

At least in the continental economies, rigidities in the labor market have prevented the creation of low-skilled jobs that would give minorities a chance to join the work force and move up the socioeconomic ladder. It is also much harder to start one’s own business in Europe than it is in highly entrepreneurial America.

Home ownership, another key factor for successful integration, is not widespread outside of England, which usually results in ethnic minorities living in rented housing and never quite feeling at home. And tellingly, not a single European country has adopted the kind of affirmative action programs that have worked so well in the United States for a generation of minorities.

Furthermore, a sharp rise over the last five years in the number of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers has led to an anti-immigration backlash that has made the integration of those already in Europe even more difficult. It is no coincidence that populist parties with xenophobic platforms have risen in France, Austria, Belgium and elsewhere. And when it comes to the job market, French or German employers have plenty of leeway to discriminate against minority applicants. In the United States, such discrimination would land a company in court for unfair labor practices.

All that is Europe’s fault and could be remedied, at least in theory. But geography is also a major factor, and that cannot be changed.

In Europe today there are between 12 and 15 million first-, second- or third-generation immigrants from developing countries. Most of them originally hail from the Muslim world, be it Turkey, the Middle East or northern Africa. They bring with them some of the same problems that have made the Muslim world a permanent crisis zone, among them low levels of schooling and a general absence of women’s rights.

Often these problems are even more pronounced in Europe than they were back in the home countries. Turkish immigrants in Germany and Austria, for example, mostly come from the least developed provinces in Eastern Anatolia, which is a world apart from cosmopolitan Istanbul. Their numbers are large enough to form a critical mass that can easily resist integration. Many Turkish immigrants in Germany get their information not from German newspapers or the local immigrant press, but from Turkey’s main daily, Hürriyet.

The contrast with situation of immigrants in the United States, warts included, is telling. Immigrants from Mexico and Honduras may be poor, but their Catholic faith gives them a natural link to mainstream America. Places like Los Angeles may have plenty of trouble with rough Latino drug gangs, but not with imams preaching the killing of civilians as a ticket to paradise. And many of the Asian immigrants who have settled on American soil over the last few decades have become model citizens whose children have made it to the top universities — much like Eastern European Jews a century ago.

It is telling that in Western Europe today, the many immigrants who have come from Eastern Europe and the Balkans since the fall of the Iron Curtain have fared far better — even taking into account the prejudice and discrimination they still face — than those from the Middle East and Africa. One need not buy into Samuel Huntington’s belief in a clash of civilizations to acknowledge that Europe’s dismal record on immigration reflects the difficulties Western societies are having in dealing with large Muslim populations.

At the moment, the Muslim immigrant population is proportionally much smaller in the United States than in Europe. Yet it would be fair to assume that if it was Morocco and not Mexico on America’s southern border, Washington’s current debate over immigration would sound far different.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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When Those Who Immigrate Don’t Assimilate

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