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How One Word Could Change the Makeup of Immigrants in the United States

What’s in a word? 

For some refugees and immigrants looking to resettle to the United States, a lot — potentially — is held in one particular word that could become part of US policy: “assimilation.” 

Just weeks after the Trump administration cut the US refugee quota to its lowest number since 1980, a new congressional report obtained in late September by CNN warns of a potential “assimilation test” for refugees and immigrants who want to enter the country legally. 

The Trump administration is reportedly considering whether to take into account “certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution in the United States,” when admitting refugees and immigrants into the country, according to Foreign Policy

It’s not clear how the Trump administration would determine the likelihood of immigrants assimilating, nor what these criteria would be, the Foreign Policy article notes. 

The administration’s reported proposal to admit refugees who are more likely to assimilate, according to CNN, falls in line with Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s "merit-based immigration" policy, which would prioritize higher-skilled and better-educated immigrants, purportedly as a way to help low-income Americans find low-skill, low-wage employment. 

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Human rights organizations condemned the language of the report. 

“The strength of the U.S. resettlement program is that it offers safe haven to the world’s most vulnerable people out of compassion, not out of self-interest,” the International Rescue Committee (IRC) wrote in a press release. “The IRC urges this White House to more fully consider the precedent and global reverberations of such uninformed decisions.” 

While past documents concerning immigration and refugee resettled have referred to “integration,” the word “assimilation” connotes the “erasure of one thing and absorption into the mainstream culture,” Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told Foreign Policy. 

The debate between those who favor “integration” and those who favor “assimilation” of refugees and immigrants has played a major role in Germany, which admitted more than 1 million refugees in 2015. 

In April of this year, German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere spoke out in favor of a policy called “Leitkultur,” which would officially establish a set of “dominant German values” and reject immigrants who fail to assimilate to those cultural standards.  

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Trump has echoed some of those arguments in talking about immigration to the US. 

For example, in a video message for newly-naturalized US citizens Trump says: “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions. You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.”

Statistics, however, show that many immigrants are doing this already. 

According to the IRC, more than half of refugees speak English “very well or exclusively” after being in the country five to 16 years and 55% will eventually become homeowners. 

Immigrants to US also tend to be highly-educated and highly-skilled, giving them a better chance to find jobs, own homes, and start businesses.  

A Pew Research study from 2015 found that the large majority (77%) of immigrants to come to the US had at least a high school degree, nearly half (41%) had at least a bachelor’s degree, and almost one in five (18%) came with a postgraduate degree — making 2015’s class of immigrants the highest-educated ever. 

Global Citizen campaigns on behalf of refugees and migrants, especially when it comes to increasing access to education. You can take action here