Opinion writer

If you spend time out on the campaign trail with the Republicans running for president, you’ll hear an intense conversation between the candidates and primary voters about immigration, one that revolves around both policy questions and the character of immigrants themselves. And to put it mildly, it isn’t always friendly. While there are a couple of different views within the field, the overwhelming bulk of the discussion posits immigrants as a problem for the rest of us — a problem of crime, a problem of strained public resources, a problem of people who refuse to assimilate, a problem of whether America will stay the America we knew or be transformed into something disturbingly alien.

But a new 443-page report from the National Academy of Sciences, drawing on a large body of research and data, shows that most of the premises of that discussion within the Republican Party are wrong.

While the the picture is complex, what the report shows overall is that within a couple of generations, today’s immigrants look almost the same as the native-born on a wide range of outcomes. Their education, their incomes, their English proficiency, their rates of crime and poverty — in all those areas, they end up becoming just like other Americans. Though there are some complications, the overall message is clear: if you’re worried that the current wave of immigrants is refusing to integrate, assimilate, and “become American,” then you don’t have to worry.

But that is precisely what many people are concerned about. When Donald Trump made his comments about Mexican immigrants in his announcement speech three months ago, he got a lot of criticism, but he also had enough people cheering that he shot right to the front of the race. Let’s look again at what he said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

That’s probably a fair summary of what a substantial portion of the Republican electorate thinks about immigrants: sure, some of them are good people, but that’s overwhelmed by criminals and all the problems they bring. And fundamentally, they’re not us.

Trump later criticized Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking audiences. This was brought up in the GOP debate last week, where Trump justified the criticism by saying: “We have a country, where, to assimilate, you have to speak English. And I think that where he was and the way it came out didn’t sound right to me. We have to have assimilation — to have a country, we have to have assimilation.” The assumption, shared by many people, is that current immigrants are not assimilating, so we have to take actions (like refusing to speak Spanish at campaign events) in order to force them to do it.

Despite the talk about things like crime and drugs (and to repeat, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans), what really drives the hostility toward immigrants is culture, the feeling that the America you knew and grew up with is becoming unrecognizable because of all these new people with their strange ways and language you don’t understand. And the premise underlying that feeling is that this time is different.

Ask even the most anti-immigration voter whether America went to hell once the Irish and Italians showed up at the turn of the 20th century, and they’ll surely reply that it didn’t. But that’s not what’s happening now, they’ll say. The reason is obvious: from today’s standpoint, we view those earlier waves of immigrants as now part of “us,” while the current wave of immigrants is “them.” The earlier immigrants and their descendants are American, while the current immigrants are coming to change America. And now I have to press one for English!

The truth, of course, is not only that the same kind of suspicion and hostility were directed at earlier immigrants, but also that those immigrants profoundly changed America, no less than the current wave of immigrants are and will. They brought with them their language, their food, their music, their religion, their art, and everything else about their culture. Those cultures were woven into existing American culture, not disappearing but becoming part of a changing whole.

For a long time we’ve used the metaphor of the “melting pot” to describe our society. But it’s a misleading one — immigrant culture doesn’t get melted down and disappear into a monochromatic whole, it both changes the whole and is changed at the same time. So “American” food now includes Mexican-American food, which is different from Mexican food, just as American music is in significant part created by African-Americans, whose music is influenced by African music but is profoundly different from it.

That continuous process of assimilating immigrants who both become American and alter the character of America is precisely the thing that makes us the most dynamic country on earth. If you’re looking for the roots of American exceptionalism, that’s where you’ll find it, not in God’s providence or the Constitution’s wisdom or our rich natural resources.

The National Academy of Sciences report includes this interesting historical point:

Many descendants of immigrants who are fully integrated into U.S. society remember the success of their immigrant parents and grandparents but forget the resistance they encountered — the riots where Italians were killed, the branding of the Irish as criminals who were taken away in “paddy wagons,” the anti-Semitism that targeted Jewish immigrants, the racist denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants, and the shameful internment of Japanese American citizens. This historical amnesia contributes to the tendency to celebrate the nation’s success in integrating past immigrants and to worry that somehow the most recent immigrants will not integrate and instead pose a threat to American society and civic life.

So out on the campaign trail, candidates hear the complaints of voters and say, explicitly or implicitly, “Yes, I agree with you — this time is different, and we have to do something about it.” In the most extreme version, that “something” means building border walls or insisting that no Muslim could be president. Those kinds of ideas will always find an audience, because immigrants will always be met with some measure of fear and anger — and there will always be politicians looking to exploit it.

There’s no question that we need to reform how the system deals with both authorized and unauthorized immigrants. That’s a debate we ought to continue. But one thing we don’t have to worry about is whether they’ll become American.