Here's what Brokaw said, after describing the anti-immigrant sentiments he has heard from people:
I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.
Let’s be clear about this: The idea that Hispanics aren’t making “sure that all their kids are learning to speak English” is simply false. But we also need to interrogate what we really mean when we talk about “assimilation.”
Let’s start with the language question. Millions of people believe that the current generation of immigrants is less willing than prior generations to learn English, but it just isn’t true. As a 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine put it, “Despite popular concerns that immigrants are not learning English as quickly as earlier immigrants, the data on English proficiency indicate that today’s immigrants are actually learning English faster than their predecessors.” If anything, it’s harder for an immigrant today to get by without knowing English than it might have been for those who came a hundred years ago and slipped easily into self-contained immigrant communities.
Nevertheless, the pattern for today's immigrants is the same as it has always been: Those who come as adults struggle to learn the language; their children are bilingual, often serving as translators for their parents; and their children's children speak only English. That's how it was in my family, and I'll bet that's how it was in yours.
But there’s an irony here. When Brokaw says Hispanics “ought not to just be codified in their communities,” it’s precisely because they aren’t staying separate from other Americans that leads people like him to worry that they aren’t assimilating.
When immigrants from Central and South America were concentrated in places like Texas, California and New York, you didn’t see nearly the panic about assimilation that you do today. It’s only when they began to move into places like the Midwest, where they hadn’t been before, that these worries grew so loud. For an older person in, say, Iowa, which had formerly been quite homogeneous, to go down the local supermarket and hear his neighbors speaking Spanish was a shock. In a way, many Americans would rather that immigrants stayed more tightly concentrated in urban ghettos, as was so often the case with previous waves of immigration, so they wouldn’t have to encounter them.
Now let's talk about the idea of "assimilation." If today's immigrants are learning English faster than previous generations, what sort of assimilation are people after? Do we want immigrants to stop eating the food of their countries of origin? Should they stop listening to the music they knew or wearing the clothes they brought with them?
A few people might think so, but I doubt it’s all that many. Something tells me that Brokaw doesn’t stop in an Irish pub or an Italian restaurant and say to himself, “These people should really work harder at assimilation.” I’ll never forget this viral video from 2016 of a jacked-up, shirtless Trump supporter screaming at a group of pro-immigration protesters, “Get the f--- out of here! Our country, motherf----r!,” which he followed with, “Go f---ing cook my burrito, b----!” and “Truuump! I love Trump!” Get out of here — or on second thought, make me some of your delicious Mexican food, which I so enjoy.
The idea that today’s immigrants aren’t “assimilating” has been a theme of the president’s since the beginning. In August 2016, he gave a speech in which he argued that “not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate” and proposed that prospective immigrants be given “An ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.”
Later, his chief of staff John Kelly said that many immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” But as Politico reported, Kelly’s own grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, “never spoke a word of English and made his living peddling a fruit cart in East Boston.” Somehow that lack of assimilation didn’t prevent his grandson from rising to the highest ranks of the American military and government.
There are a number of ways to think about the “They’re not assimilating” reaction so many people have to immigrants, ranging from more to less generous. You can decide it’s simply racism or tribalism. You can decide it’s a predictable response to societal change, which can be disorienting particularly for older people. But what’s so pernicious about President Trump’s role in spreading the lie about assimilation is that he joins it to equally fictitious claims about immigrants being a source of crime and violence, encouraging people to feel not just uneasy about immigrants but also to fear and hate them.
So here’s the truth: For all the conflicts we’ve had over our history with each successive wave of immigration, it’s precisely our ability to assimilate immigrants that is one of our greatest national strengths. It’s why we’ve had so little terrorism originating in immigrant communities (our biggest domestic terrorism threat comes from right-wing white people). It’s part of why America is such a dynamic society, why we have more Nobel Prize winners than any other country, why our technological innovations spread through the world, why our music and movies and television are part of life in every corner of the globe.
But it does mean that America is constantly changing as new immigrants arrive. In America, assimilation doesn't mean casting off everything you used to know and adopting only the things that are identifiably white. It means finding a way to integrate your culture into the broader American culture, which every immigrant group has done.
So let’s say you’re an immigrant from Nigeria, and when you come to America you take a tae kwon do class and start eating burritos. Is that assimilation? You bet it is, even if it’s not exactly what some people have in mind. Those people would prefer it American culture were frozen at a particular moment, generally around the time they were kids. Trump appealed to them in 2016 by saying that he’d build a wall and make America great again, meaning not what it is today but what you remember it being back then when life was simpler, whenever “back then” was for you.
Brokaw grew up in South Dakota and built much of his career on nostalgia for a supposedly superior past, so perhaps it’s not surprising to see him worry that the present, and the present generation of immigrants, are worse in some fundamental way than what came before. When he said what he did, another panelist, PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor — who grew up in multicultural Miami and is herself the daughter of immigrants — politely pushed back against “the idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always part of America.”
Brokaw is now doing damage control, but perhaps this episode can make everyone think a little more deeply about their assumptions and what kind of assimilation we actually want. The truth is that we don’t have to worry about whether immigrants will assimilate. But if what you want is for America to never change, you’re out of luck.