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Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico today is once again focusing national attention on immigration issues. But since I wrote Monday about the Republican presidential candidate’s self-inflicted wounds on this front, and how he can fix them, there’s not much point to returning to the subject as such until Trump has finished his talks with Mexico’s, President Enrique Pena Nieto, and then delivered an eagerly awaited speech on his overall strategy and key details.

Instead, let’s deal today with what might be called the other side of the immigration coin – assimilation. I’ve long suspected that its recent U.S. policy failures on this front that account for much of the restrictionist camp’s fervor. (It’s certainly loomed large in my own thinking.) That is, I believe there would be much more support from current immigration policy critics for greater inflows and even for some form of legalization of current illegals if they had any reason to believe that government at any level would take seriously the challenge of ensuring that newcomers and the existing illegal population learn about and adopt the core values and shared identity so largely responsible for America’s unprecedented success.

At the same time, some news over the last month should remind all Americans that, however necessary, effective assimilation policies are easier supported than formulated. And I’m now convinced that the challenges will continue growing ever greater even if political will was not lacking. For that conclusion, thank the “burkini.”

Immigration waves of course have always triggered opposition for a variety of reasons – and have included subversion of “Americanism.” But it’s easy to dismiss most of this particular objection as thinly disguised prejudice because civic education was such a priority national mission. I’m not a fan of anecdotes, but here’s a relevant family story.

My father’s parents came to this country from Lithuania in the early twentieth century, along with millions of other Eastern and Southern Europeans. As with so many from the former region, they quickly settled in an overwhelmingly Eastern European New York City Jewish neighborhood where English was rarely used. Similar quasi-voluntary ghetto-ization was the experience of numerous other immigrant groups in their new Northeastern and Midwestern urban homes.

Fast forward to 1929. My five-year old father has just entered kindergarten, and like many classmates barely speaks any English because it was largely absent not only in the playground or the synagogue or the delicatessen or butcher shop. It wasn’t spoken at home, either, because his parents’ knowledge was still pretty elementary. Fortunately, he had a more practical aunt who admonished them to get with the English program in order to improve his chances of academic success.

But even more important, my father told me many times that, despite his early linguistic limitations, in retrospect nothing was (subconsciously) clearer to his little-kid mind than that a major purpose of his schooling was to turn him into what he called “a little American.”

In recent decades, how many parents and students out there can honestly say that that’s been their own experience or their children’s experience? If anything, schools today at all levels often seem to be sending the opposite message. In my step-son’s prep school, which was actually on balance very responsible in educating rather than propagandizing students, he was nonetheless urged to think like a global citizen. My own alma mater recently changed its informal motto from former President Woodrow Wilson’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” to (the much stylistically clumsier) “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”

Not that there aren’t often broad overlaps between national interests and worldwide interests. But this overlap isn’t always present. So when they conflict, what does Princeton want its students to do? And for my son’s less ambiguous school, who defines those global interests and their supposed citizenship responsibilities? What political community other than one that is national in scope enjoys the necessary legitimacy (provided of course that the government is reasonably accountable to its population)?

And lest you believe that schools are the only possible channels of civic education – or the main obstacles – think of the rampant bi- and multi-lingualism that’s overcome broad swathes of the country. Its most recent – and one of its most absurd – extensions has been New York City’s decision to relieve cab drivers of the requirement of speaking English proficiently.

So I hope I’ve established my pro-assimilation street cred – and the case that this ideal has greatly weakened in recent decades. And yet a huge fly has just been stuck in this ointment, in the form of the burkini controversy in France. It seems pretty clear to all thinking people that the ban by certain French beach towns of the full-body swimwear worn by many devout Muslim women has taken the push-back against multi-culturalism way too far – and in an ironically misogynistic way. But what’s most important about this episode is its reflection of France’s longstanding national approach to assimilation – which is often described as “aggressive secularism.”

In other words, you can make a strong argument that France has followed the assimilation-ist route that I’ve just endorsed. And it’s even easier to argue that, as numerous riots and bloody terrorist attacks over the last decade make tragically clear, this approach has failed miserably.

Not surprisingly, any number of explanations have been offered, ranging from widespread economic and social discrimination faced by French Muslims; to the transformation of France’s secularism into an intolerant faith itself; to Islam’s inherent nature as a religion with a prominent public and political dimension that is fundamentally incompatible with even genuinely tolerant secularism.

It’s tempting to point out that France’s history with immigration and assimilation simply isn’t relevant to the U.S. immigration debate nowadays, in part because America’s national identity has never been based on “blood and soil,” but on an ideology that is largely pluralistic itself; and in part because the Hispanic-origin population at the latter’s center doesn’t hold such separatist views. In other words, it’s often argued, the host country here has always faced fewer obstacles towards integrating newcomers, and today’s immigrants are anxious to be integrated.

Nonetheless, reasons for doubting these integrationist claims have resulted from many Hispanics’ distinctive insistence on bilingualism, as well as from periodic calls from the Mexican-American community in particular for a “reconquista” (“reconquering”) of American territory annexed by the United States after the Mexican war of 1848. And don’t forget the bi-national lifestyles (called “circular migration” by specialists) of so many Mexican-Americans, which tend to undermine the closely related ideas of borders and distinct political communities.

I’m still confident that a truly successful U.S. immigration policy absolutely requires a more successful approach to assimilation, for political reasons but also for the health of our society.  But France’s experience has made me a lot less confident that the goal will be achieved any time soon even if enough of the nation was on board. 

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