Don’t Compare U.S. Immigration To Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Don’t Compare U.S. Immigration To Europe’s Migrant Crisis

To pretend we’re facing the same cultural crisis as Europe would be laughable if it weren’t so intellectually dishonest and irresponsible.
Megan G. Oprea
By

Should America look to Europe for lessons about immigration and assimilation? That’s what Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) argued this week in the Wall Street Journal. Their editorial specifically warns against following Sweden’s example, and lauds Norway’s precedent.

Though Cotton and Pompeo rightly grasp the differences between these two countries’ immigration approaches, they are wrong to compare Europe’s Muslim migrant crisis to our own immigrant situation.

What’s Happening In Europe

Europe has provoked considerable conversation on the topic of immigration and assimilation, as the migrant crisis brought millions of people from Muslim-majority countries to its borders. As Cotton and Pompeo point out, Norway has unabashedly talked about cultural differences and its own desire to protect and preserve Norwegian culture. For those reasons, Norway has limited the number of refugees it will admit to those facing war and persecution. It has also disincentivized asylum seekers by reducing migrant benefits to match those of its neighbors.

Sweden, meanwhile, has done the opposite.  The Swedes began offering permanent residency to Syrian refugees in 2013. They’ve taken in 280,000 migrants from many countries over the past three years. Yet it’s considered xenophobic or even racist even to discuss the impact this might have on Sweden’s economy and culture.

Cotton and Pompeo consider the “economic, social, and political upheaval” that resulted when Swedish politicians didn’t listen to citizens’ concerns about immigration. They suggest that the Norwegian model is the one America should follow, lest we suffer Sweden’s fate.

They are correct suggesting that Norway’s model is preferable and that there are lessons we can draw from it. But they couldn’t be more wrong in concluding that America faces a similar cultural threat from our mostly Hispanic immigrant population.

America Isn’t Facing A Migrant Crisis

Cotton and Pompeo are blending two of Trump’s most popular talking points—immigration and Islamist terrorism—to evoke fear that we will share Europe’s destiny if we don’t crack down on Hispanic immigration. Not only is this a cheap rhetorical tool, it treats immigration as though it were the same in every country. It pays no heed to the context and cultures involved. And it ignores the fact that ease of immigration depends on the two countries in question: their religion, politics, and history.

The most obvious difference is religion. Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. are overwhelmingly Catholic. Europe faces a tougher challenge when it comes to assimilation and preservation of European culture, because most of their migrants come from conservative Muslim countries. Acknowledging this difference is not considered “polite,” but it’s nevertheless a crucial factor in differentiating the assimilation challenges for both groups.

Islam is different from other religions, as Shadi Hamid points out in his book “Islamic Exceptionalism.” It does not see religion as separable from government. Islam directs and orders every aspect of life—including legal matters—and is thus inherently political. For many Muslims, this includes implementation of sharia law, not to mention religious directives about free speech and religion. This feature of Islam is bound to cause friction with European countries that espouse the separation of church and state.

There are also naturally-arising cultural tensions for many Muslim immigrants to the West, including but not limited to the role of women. In contrast to the Muslim world, European women aren’t restricted to the private and home sphere. They run corporations and lead governments. They dress how they like. European women can even travel unaccompanied, without the permission of a male guardian. These religious and cultural differences pose real barriers to Muslim assimilation in Europe.

Muslim Immigrants Often Struggle to Assimilate

Hispanic immigrants, on the other hand, often have a devout Catholic background. Their worldview easily fits into American society, which is built on a Judeo-Christian foundation. Hispanic immigrants share our fundamental beliefs about the equality of men and women. Their religion doesn’t dictate legal matters or conflict with our beliefs on free speech.

Many mosques and Islamic centers in Europe (and the U.S.) are funded by Saudi Arabia and have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. These groups encourage Muslim immigrants to form parallel societies and promote the idea that Islam and the West are at war. This can separate Muslims who might otherwise assimilate. There are no such Catholic groups in Mexico or Honduras whispering in the ears of Hispanic migrants. Nor do we have a problem with radicalized Catholic Latinos attacking civilians in the name of Pope Francis.

This isn’t to say that Muslims can’t assimilate in the West—many have and continue to do so. But the challenges are greater because the divide is wider. The reverse is also true: a Westerner moving to a Muslim country will find it more difficult to adapt than an emigrant from another Muslim country.

It’s also important to note the colonial past that ties Europe to many of the countries migrants come from. Bloody memories of the colonial era and its violent wars linger in the minds of non-Muslim and Muslim Europeans alike. While we do have a long history with Mexico, it never came close to the ferocity and acrimony of, say, France and Algeria. But this is important in determining whether immigrants fully embrace the culture and society of their new home.

Hispanic Immigrants Believe In Core American Values

Cotton and Pompeo also ignore different assimilation patterns between Hispanics in the U.S. and Muslims in Europe, which show that we don’t face the same cultural threats as Europe. Latino immigrants generally believe in core American values: according to a Pew Hispanic Research Center poll conducted in 2012, 75 percent of Latinos think that by working hard, anyone can get ahead. That’s 17 percentage points higher than the general public. Almost half say they see themselves as a typical American. That number goes up to 66 percent when looking at only U.S.-born Hispanics.

Hispanic high school dropout rates have dropped from 32 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2014 for Latinos ages 18 to 24. Their college enrollment is up, and Hispanic college students are significantly less likely to have student loans than white and black households. They also have unemployment rates within a point or two of Americans in general.

As for language, a hot button issue for those concerned with immigration, 51 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics are English dominant—meaning they speak both Spanish and English, but speak English more often and better. And while they overwhelmingly want future generations to speak Spanish, 87 percent think Hispanic immigrants also need to speak English in order to succeed in the U.S.

That contrasts starkly with the situation Europe now faces. As Cotton and Pompeo note, the Muslim migrants Sweden took in “possess virtually no Swedish-language skills.”

Society And Governance Can Help Foster Assimilation

In addition to all these differences between European and American immigrant populations, Cotton and Pompeo don’t acknowledge differences in governance and society between Europe and the United States. A 2011 Manhattan Institute study found that Muslim immigrants in America are more integrated than Muslim immigrants in Europe. It’s not just the country of origin that matters—the country receiving immigrants has a huge impact. And the U.S. is much better equipped to assimilate immigrants without losing grasp of its own culture.

Americans are worried about immigration—Donald Trump’s nomination is proof of that. And Cotton and Pompeo warn that politicians ignore those concerns only to America’s peril. It may be fair to say that politicians shouldn’t lose touch with American voters about immigration. But to pretend that we’re facing the same cultural crisis as Europe would be laughable if it weren’t so intellectually dishonest and irresponsible.

Megan G. Oprea is editor of the foreign policy newsletter INBOUND. She holds a PhD in French linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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