The term assimilation in the US is often treated as synonymous with “Americanization,” which indicates immigrants’ adoption of historically dominant cultural norms in the US in a quest for upward social mobility, including acceptance into society, economic growth, and permanent residence status or citizenship.
The term also has racist connotations, and can include the implication that certain cultures are better able to assimilate because they are perceived as “whiter.” It can also serve to “other” immigrants and suggest their culture is inferior and should be abandoned. If using the term, it can be helpful to explain these nuances and how the word can be used in coded ways.
Distinct from assimilation is the related concept of integration, a process between migrants and the societies they live in that facilitates their incorporation into the social, economic, cultural, and political life of the receiving communities. The term “integration” emphasizes the two-way process, rather than suggesting immigrants should be absorbed into an existing culture. Given the differences in the concepts, the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.
In April 2021, immigration agencies under the Biden administration stopped using the term “assimilation” in favor of “integration.”
Similar to integration, acculturation is the process by which an immigrant adopts some elements of their new home’s culture but folds them into their native culture, retaining, for example, distinct customs, food, and language.
- 9.1 Assimilation – Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. (University of Minnesota Libraries)
- US immigration agencies drop use of terms like “illegal alien” and “assimilation” (CBS)
- Migrant integration (Migration Data Portal)
In the context of immigration, assimilation typically refers to immigrants’ adoption of the majority group’s language and some of their cultural values. Historically in the US, it can have coded racist connotations, as it has often implied the absorption of dominant cultural norms. Terms such as integration and acculturation are possible alternatives, with more of an emphasis on a two-way process, allowing for the retention of native customs, language, and other cultural markers.