People who favor strict immigration policies often complain that immigrants fail to "assimilate." I'm not quite sure what to do with this complaint, because I don't really know what standard they're applying. I guess speaking passable English is one requirement. Obeying laws and informal norms is another. But it seems like most immigrants already do these things. (In case you're unaware, immigrants commit crimes at much lower rates than natives, according to official statistics.) It feels like some kind of cultural standard is being applied to them, but nobody ever articulates what it is.
If I were an immigrant, would someone who observed my habits and behaviors consider me assimilated into American culture? By what criteria would I be judged anyway? Maybe some kind of distance from a cultural mean? Or perhaps fitting in with a community somewhere would count, even if that community is weird by the standards of America as a whole.
I don't watch any televised sports, and I don't like any of the major American sportsballs. (I literally stopped reading the cover story of the most recent issue of Reason magazine because it was one giant baseball metaphor.) The closest I come to that is watching jiujitsu and mixed martial arts matches on Youtube, but I don't even follow these sports in real time. I'm out of the loop, not equipped to join in the water cooler talk, because I don't know who's the latest super-star. I don't attend church. My religious and political views are probably "out there" at an extreme percentile of unusualness. I don't get anything out of fireworks or the 4th of July. They don't bring me the excitement or "warm fuzzies" that other Americans (apparently) experience. I attend family get-togethers on such occasions, but if it weren't for these I wouldn't feel compelled to have a grill-out on my own initiative. I don't watch the news. I get mildly uncomfortable when people start talking to me about current news events, because I find the topics kind of weird and arbitrary, like there are always more important things to worry about at the moment. My reaction is either, "This is uninteresting, I'll keep quiet until he moves on" or "The standard narrative is wrong, but I don't feel like having an unpleasant conversation right now." Someone once started complaining to me about how a weather forecast was wrong and said something like "You can't trust those weather forecasts!" I responded with an "AKSHUALLY..." and started explaining that this is the one piece of the news that's fairly well calibrated and useful for predicting the future at least on average. (I don't do this often, but this person was a fellow nerd who appreciated the point about prediction and calibration. I did think later, "Was this just a typical conversation starter and I missed the point?") I'm also out of the loop on popular TV shows, though admittedly this has segmented in recent decades with cable TV and streaming services. I haven't seen a single episode of Game of Thrones. Or Survivor. Or the various reality TV game shows. (I have seen almost every episode of The Simpsons and South Park, so maybe that puts me back in good standing? These shows have been cultural icons for 34 and 26 years.) I'm not exactly a misfit, but I don't really have a lot of typical behaviors.
It feels like even economically successful immigrant populations in good standing are resented for not assimilating into American culture. The stereotype of the studious east or south Asian family who all become doctors or IT superstars comes to mind. To natives they may seem aloof, cloistered away in their rooms (while at university) or homes (after graduation) studying hard to gain membership to the professional classes. This description was me for a large chunk of my life. I did four years of undergrad and four years of graduate studies. Then I spent seven years studying for and taking actuarial exams. Getting good grades and passing the actuarial exams was an all-encompassing part of my existence for most of my 20s and early 30s. I would often miss holidays and other outings. I was, in that sense, declining to assimilate. I don't think anyone would think to disqualify me from being an American for these behaviors. Still, I get the sense that certain immigrant populations are being held to a bullshit standard that is never quite articulated. There are weird enclaves of culture in America, where the clannish, cliquish native-born inhabitants would not fit in elsewhere and would not tolerate outsiders well. There are weird individuals who, though native born and thoroughly American by any definition, just don't fit in well and don't participate in standard American culture. I don't think it ever occurs to anyone that these people's status as Americans is in question, or that their failure to assimilate would justify deporting them.
If "failure to assimilate" is ever to be used as an excuse to set restrictive immigration policies, let's insist that the restrictionists clarify exactly what their objection is. If there is a massive, nearly homogeneous enclave of immigrants practicing barbaric customs (say, female genital mutilation or trading "exotic" animal meat), that would be cause for concern. If there are noticeable cultural differences in, say, attitudes about violence and retribution, that would certainly be a problem that needed fixing.* If immigrants are coming from cultures that blatantly flout the law, have rampant corruption, or openly express racist or sexist ideas, then someone needs to take them aside and explain how things are done in their new country. It would be cruel not to, like failing to put up a "bridge out" sign. On the other hand, if natives who complain about lack of assimilation are really just saying, "I don't like seeing large gatherings of Asians speaking a non-English language" or "I'd like it if immigrants adopted 'grill-out-and-football' culture", we should dismiss these complaints out of hand as irrelevant.
*Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her work helping Somali immigrant families assimilate in her book Infidel. When she lived in the Netherlands, she had a job in which she counseled Somali mothers to train their young children not to use violence. They came from a culture of "hitting back." Ali had to teach the mothers that in Dutch culture it's not okay for children to fight, even if someone else started the fight. This strikes me as a legitimate case of "failure to assimilate" that required correcting.