Successful assimilation of immigrants

Esther Duflo 04 December 2007



Immigration stirs up strong enough fears to justify questionable measures of protection against it – from arrests at the doors of French schools to the border wall that separates the USA from Mexico.

Economic research suggests that the intensity of these reactions seems completely disproportionate to immigration’s real economic impact on the local population. David Card has shown that even massive waves of immigration (like the arrival of Cuban boat people on the coasts of Florida) don’t result in lower salaries or fewer jobs for local people in the US.1 In a recent survey article, he concluded that the “new immigration” assimilates just as well as previous waves had, and that the wages and employment prospects of natives are not any lower in cities that received more migrants2. Furthermore, Patricia Cortes also showed that an increase in the number of immigrants causes a price-drop in the sectors where they’re concentrated (i.e., the service and food industries, and child care); this benefits the local population.3

Economic reasons don’t seem to provide a sufficient explanation for the persistent distrust of immigrants among the native population. It seems that in part, this distrust can be attributed to the feeling that each new wave of immigrants is unique and cannot assimilate, and that the very fabric of our societies is threatened by the presence of these strangers. Just as 19th century Italian immigrants angered the French proletariat with their outward display of religion (they were disparagingly nicknamed “the christos” by the French working class), today many predict that the new wave of Latino-American immigration is essentially unable to assimilate, because it is too distant from “traditional” American values (i.e., Anglo-Saxon and Protestant values). According to Samuel Huntington, one of the most prominent political scientists in the US, this fundamental incapacity to adapt exemplifies the “shock of civilizations”: the great conflicts of the twenty first century will take place along religious lines, amongst eight great “religions” of the world.4

In Europe, Muslim immigration is today’s prime example of this “shock of cultures”. Every suburban riot and every bus burned is taken as an example that children of Muslim immigrants don’t consider themselves British or French. If the French played cricket, Muslim youth would certainly fail Tebbit’s “cricket test” (the British minister infamously asked which side Britain’s Asian immigrants would support in a Pakistani-English match).

Even in England, where the attitude towards immigration and assimilation is more relaxed than in France, the terrorist attacks of recent years gave rise to alarming observations that children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi families weren’t able to adapt to British society. This was made particularly salient by the video message of one of the July 7 London bombers (British-born but whose parents were from Pakistan), which said “your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters”, clearly contrasting “we” and “you”.5

But aside from a few anecdotes and these dramatic, but isolated examples, it has never been shown that young Muslims stay foreign to the culture of their adopted country more than any other immigrants. On the contrary, a recent study from Alan Manning and Sanchari Roy, of the London School of Economics,6 suggests that there’s no real difference in the pace of assimilation between Muslim immigrants (essentially Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Somalians and Indians) and other immigrants. Manning and Roy study the response to the question asked in an annual survey which asked about what nationality the respondent associate with. The specific question is “What do you consider your national identity to be? Please choose as many or as few as apply?” There were six possible responses: British, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Other. The author grouped British, English, Scottish and Welsh together under the heading “British”, and take the answer “British” to this question a sign of assimilation. Among those who were born in England, 94% of persons asked consider themselves British; whereas those in Northern Ireland are 24% less likely to identify as British (they consider themselves as Irish). Second-generation children of immigrants identify less often as British, but not to a large extent (from 2% to 5% depending on the country), and it is similar across countries – in other words, children of Pakistani immigrants identify as British at least as often as the children of Italian or Chinese immigrants.

Religion doesn’t have any impact on the answer to this question. Moreover, this variable doesn’t seem to change over time; the youngest group of immigrant children aren’t less English than other, older immigrant children. Even events like September 11th, the war in Iraq or July 7th, had no effect on young Muslims’ feeling of being English. Furthermore, from the third generation, the difference (in response to this question) between the offspring of immigrants and that of native British people completely disappear, for all nationalities.

These results strongly suggest that there is no erosion of British identity amongst the children of immigrants. However, they could still feel British, but have different values. To explore this question, Manning and Roy turned to a survey of “values”, conducted on 15,000 people, 5000 of whom were children of immigrants. The survey focuses on the “rights and obligations” of those surveyed (example of rights are freedom of speech, freedom of thoughts, freedom of religion, right to be treated fairly and equally, right to free education etc….; examples of responsibility include “to help and protect your family; to educate children properly, to obey and respect law. Etc..”. Once again, there is no difference between Muslims and others on the number of rights and responsibility that they think they should have; and this is born out by looking at specific rights individually.

Manning and Roy rightly conclude that, on the basis of available evidence, Huntington’s pessimism - that Muslim immigrants will prove “indigestible” to non-Muslim societies, seems unjustified indeed. If anything, the constant reminders of “native” Europeans that there is “us” and “them”, the new, scary, Muslim immigrants and their offspring may do substantially more to create a rift than any religious or cultural feeling these immigrants have brought with them and transferred to their children.

1 David Card has written extensively about immigration. The famous piece on the massive Cuban immigration to Miami can be found at: "The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 43 (January 1990). Other
2 David Card (2005) “Is the new Immigration Really so bad” Economic Journal 115 (November 2005)
3 Patricia Cortes (2006) “The Effect of low skilled immigration on US Prices” Working paper, university of Chicago Graduate School of Business.
4 Samuel Huntington “The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order” New York: free Press (2002)
5 Cited in Manning and Roy (2007), see reference below.
6 Alan Manning and Sanchari Roy “Culture Clash or Culture Club” Working Paper, Center for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.





Topics:  Labour markets

Tags:  immigration; anti-immigration, Muslim immigrants, assimilation

Professor of Economics at MIT and a CEPR Programme Director