What Bobby Jindal Gets Wrong About Assimilation, And Why It Matters

The falseness of saying, “Immigration without assimilation is invasion.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's one-liner on immigration doesn't hold up. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There’s an invasion happening in the United States. At least, that’s what Bobby Jindal is warning in his campaign stump speeches and television appearances these days.

“Immigration without assimilation is invasion,” the Republican hopeful repeats, and repeats often.

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Assimilation is a strong sentiment, especially coming from the son of two immigrants. “Learn English and adopt our values,” says Jindal, who is polling at less than 1 percent.

But invoking assimilation in a political context has deeper implications. It’s a pointed attempt to polarize voters along the issue of an emerging multiethnic society.

Assimilation harks back to the days of immigrants refusing to speak their native language to their children out of fear of prejudice. Become American, or what some people think is American, it demands.

“It really is a euphemism for brown people to become like Americans now,” says Cesar Vargas, the first undocumented immigrant to become a lawyer in New York.

In a Republican presidential primary dominated by a deafening anti-immigrant gushes of front-runner Donald Trump, minor candidates are trying anything they can to get a foothold. This is Jindal’s mistaken attempt.

The alarm in his one-liner is baseless, says Michael Fix, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, since there is no crisis of large enclaves of immigrants not learning English, entering the workforce, or joining society.

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“His statement by default is that this isn’t happening,” says Fix. “The evidence isn’t there for that, by and large. We want people to come here and speak English, and not live in segregated communities, and adopt democratic norms, and participate in civic life. We want all of those things, and all of those things are happening.”

Jindal’s word choice is also at issue here. We should not strive for assimilation, Fix says, but for integration. Immigrants can take on all of these personae and also hold on to their culture and language.

“The core idea of assimilation is they become like us,” he says. “The core idea of integration is we become similar. We come to resemble one another. It’s two directions, not one direction.”

Integration is proceeding powerfully across the country, as is evident by the success of the second generation, who historically has higher educational attainment and job success. Spanish and other foreign languages are also largely gone by the second generation and completely by the third generation, trends show.

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Jindal’s tenuous statement is less sociological and fact-based, and more rhetorical. Vargas, who is a codirector of the advocacy group Dream Action Coalition, says it’s tapping into a fear of early state Republican primary voters, who are more White than the rest of the country.

“It goes back to exploiting a fear of the new demographics and the new changing America,” he says, “and less about the U.S. needing to promote unity through English and certain traditions.”

Jindal may think there’s an invasion. But cultural whitewashers have already lost that argument.