Thursday, August 27, 2009

Culture: Future Immigration will look Canadian

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Assuming the United States ever gets its health care situation sorted out in a meaningful way, another major issue that it needs to take on is immigration. Pretty much everyone agrees that the immigration situation in the United States--legal and illegal--is a mess, but there is not much more agreement about what to do about it than there is in health care. Interestingly, there does seem to be consensus that somehow acculturation needs to be at the core of any reform, that immigrants need to better integrate into US culture. Some take this theme to borderline racist extremes, such as a recent Robert Harrison column in the Christian Science Monitor that claimed Hispanic immigration should be curtailed in part because the verb structure of the Spanish language doesn't emphasize personal responsibility. (As a side note, I have studied enough Spanish to understand exactly what he was getting at and still think the argument is absurd, and that shame should assign itself to him.)

The problem with this emphasis on acculturation is that it is no longer realistic to expect the same kind of near-complete acculturation that took place as late as the middle part of the last century. No longer does a person move to a new place and only partake in the local culture and media. Technology has completely changed how people can maintain ties to their former culture. Not only does the decreasing cost of air transportation make it more affordable to visit a previous country, but the Internet has made it possible to take in the media of a former country, almost as if one were living in it. It is possible now to be truly bi-cultural, interacting with both one's local culture and one's former culture.

A new model for handling immigration will take precedence because of these changes, and Canada has a big head start on most of the world. For the past generation or so, Canada has encouraged immigrants to bring their cultures with them and build ties to others from their former country in Canada as well as with other Canadians. The city of Toronto, with its string of ethnic festivals all summer long, may represent the epitome of this style immigration, but it is present in any city in Canada with a significant immigrant population. People are allowed to be whatever they used to be--and Canadian. The two perspectives are not seen to be conflict.

One of the things that has amazed me in talking to Canadians that I interact with is how strongly they maintain ties to former cultures. I knew immigrants to the US that went back to their former countries on occasion, but here it is almost expected that people fly across oceans a couple times a year to visit relatives. Many move back and forth for extended periods when that is legal. Communities congregate around institutions, whether they be formal cultural centers or just a store with goods from a given country. A non-Canadian cultural identity is a daily presence in many people's lives.

The situation has existed long enough that quite a number of bi-cultural marriages have resulted. A co-worker once casually stated that interracial relationships were "unremarkable." The first family of Canada, Governor General Michaƫlle Jean and her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond are an interracial couple that serve as a role model. The result is lot of Canadians with very nuanced identities, a concept explored by the CBC Radio program Mashup. The difference with multiracial folks in the US? There seems to be a much greater desire to hang on to the various individual identities here, rather than just being "Canadian" and nothing else. These Canadians do not just have two identities, but three or more. The lack of complete acculturation is lasting more than one generation.

For those that don't like this perspective, I suspect it's going to be hard to fight. It's not possible to legislate that one partake only in the media of a new country and not in the media from a previous country. It might be possible to legislate minimal travel and some communication restrictions, but that would only encourage the best and brightest to immigrate somewhere else where travel and communication restrictions did not exist. Like it or not, immigrants are going to be increasingly bi-cultural. Countries will need to figure out how to make this work--as Canada seems to be trying to do--or they will face constant tensions and immigration problems.

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