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Immigration: Assimilation and the measure of an American

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Is she assimilated? She laughs at the question: "Well, it depends on what you mean by 'assimilated.' "

That, it turns out, is a controversial question. And it is one that has moved in recent months to the forefront of public debate, as lawmakers wrestle with immigration reform, and as the Boston Marathon bombings – allegedly perpetrated by two ethnic Chechen immigrants – ushered in a new wave of speculation about newcomers' ability, or desire, to integrate into American culture.

On one side are conservative officials and pundits who worry that a flood of Spanish-speaking immigrants and a reverence for "multiculturalism" have led to a population of immigrants in the US unappreciative of and unconnected to their new country. On the other are a slew of academics, armed with studies from think tanks and longitudinal research projects, who say that assimilation these days is as strong as it has ever been, that immigrants as a group are still more enthusiastic about the country than the native born, that immigrants' children tend to do better than their parents by a host of socioeconomic indicators, and that within three generations an immigrant family fully identifies as American.

This happens across the country, they say, even in regions such as the Southeast that are not traditional immigrant destinations.

Although there has been bipartisan support in Congress's immigration reform efforts for provisions to better integrate new immigrants into US civic and cultural life, as Arlene Garcia and her family show, the notion of assimilation – or "integration," "incorporation," or any word used to describe the process of belonging – is far from straightforward. To evaluate how and whether immigrants – and, arguably more important, their children – are becoming part of this country involves questions of identity, belonging, and the very essence of being American.

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