A Q&A with Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, authors of Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe

With immigration at a record high, migrants and their children are a rapidly growing population whose integration needs have never been more pressing. Shedding new light on questions and concerns, Strangers No More is the first look at immigrant assimilation across six Western countries: Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada. Recently the authors, Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, provided context for their book and answered some questions on immigration, including how individual nations are being transformed, why Islam proves a barrier for inclusion in Western Europe in particular, and what future trends to expect.

Foner jacketWhy does understanding immigrant integration in Western Europe and America matter?

Put simply, it’s one of the key issues of the twenty-first century on both sides of the Atlantic.

What makes it so urgent? The numbers: Western European countries as well as the US and Canada have been faced with incorporating millions of immigrants whose cultures, languages, religions, and racial backgrounds differ from those of most long-established residents.

Future trends: The challenges of integrating immigrants and their children—so they can become full members of the societies where they live—are likely to become even more important in the coming decades in the face of (1) continued demand for new immigrant inflows and (2) demographic shifts in which the huge number of people of immigrant origin—immigrants as well as their children—will constitute a much larger share of the adult population.  Large portions of the immigrant-origin populations of these countries are going to come from the “low-status” groups—such as Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in Britain, and Mexicans in the U.S.—that are the focus of the book. There is no question that their opportunities are critical for the future.

Does any one country come out clearly ahead?

Basically, the answer is no. The book’s comparison of four European countries, Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and two in North America, the United States and Canada, shows that when it comes to the integration of low-status immigrants—in terms of jobs, income and poverty, residential segregation, electoral success, children’s education, intermarriage, and race and religion—there are no clear-cut winners and losers. Each society fails and succeeds in different ways. Nor is there a consistent North America- Europe divide: Canada and the United States as well as countries within Europe differ in ways they’ve provided opportunities, and erected barriers, for immigrants.

So how is the United States doing?

In some ways the U.S. looks good compared to the continental European countries in the book. The U.S. has been quick (like Canada) to extend a national identity to immigrants and their children. Rates of intermarriage between those of immigrant origin and whites are relatively high. The U.S. has a pretty good record of electing immigrant-origin politicians, and is the only country to vote in the child of a non-Western immigrant to the highest national office.

In other ways, the U.S. has the highest bars to integration of all the six countries. The rate of residential segregation experienced by many immigrant families stands out as extreme. The disadvantages immigrants and their children confront in terms of their economic status is greatest in the U.S., which has the most severe economic inequality. The US also has the largest number—and proportion—of undocumented immigrants, who are denied basic rights and opportunities.

Aren’t all these countries being transformed by immigration?

Yes, they are. One could say that the face of the West is inevitably changing. During the next quarter century, a momentous transition to much greater diversity will take place everywhere. As the post-World War II baby booms—and such groups, made up largely of the native majority group, are found throughout North America and Western Europe– retire from work and become less socially active in other ways, they are going to be replaced by groups of young adults who in some countries will be relatively few in number, and everywhere will be more diverse, more likely to have grown up in immigrant homes.

The “mainstream” of these countries will change, too, in that the people who will occupy positions of authority and visibility will be much more diverse than in the past. We already see this occurring in the U.S., where younger workers in well-paid jobs are less likely to come from the non-Hispanic white group than their predecessors did.   But there is a paradox. At the same time – and a cause for real concern—many young people of immigrant background are being left behind because of grossly unequal opportunities.

But why is Islam a much greater barrier to inclusion for immigrants and their children in Western Europe than it is in the United States?

One reason is basic demographics: a much larger proportion of immigrants in Western Europe are Muslim than in the U.S., where the great majority are Christian. Also, Muslim immigrants in the U.S. have a lower socioeconomic profile than those in Europe. Second: the way Christian religions in Europe have been institutionalized, and historically entangled with the state, has made it difficult for Islam to achieve equal treatment. In the U.S., the constitutional principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state have allowed Muslims more space to develop their own religious communities. Third: a secular mindset dominates in most Western European countries as compared to the high level of religiosity in the United States so that claims based on religion, and Islam in particular, have much less acceptance and legitimacy in Europe.

What is the good news—and the more positive side of the story?

One positive is the growing success of immigrant minorities in winning local and national political office in all six countries. Children of immigrants are mixing and mingling with people in other groups, including long-established natives, in schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. The emergence of super-diverse neighborhoods contributes to the sense that ethnic and racial diversity is a normal order of things.

Intermarriage rates are rising among some immigrant groups in all the countries, so that more family circles bring together people of immigrant origin and longer-established natives—and children of mixed backgrounds are increasingly common. In the U.S., one out of seven marriages now crosses the major lines of race or Hispanic ancestry; and most of these intermarriages involve individuals from immigrant backgrounds and whites. Everywhere at least some children of low-status immigrants are getting advanced academic credentials and good jobs. And while racial and religious divisions seem like intractable obstacles, over time the barriers may loosen and blur.

Richard Alba is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Blurring the Color Line and Remaking the American Mainstream. Nancy Foner is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her books include From Ellis Island to JFK and In a New Land.