Boston Bombing Analysis: When Immigrants Don’t “Americanize”

Immigration advocates are dismayed that these petty terrorists acted just when momentum for reform was building, but this forces us to consider the content of our citizenship

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Ecuadorian immigrant Diego Cazar, now living in the U.S. for 12 years, looks towards the Statue of Liberty while participating in a 'Time is Now' rally for immigration reform on April 6, 2013 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Does America still Americanize immigrants? That question is now nervously being debated in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings. It’s not just that the Tsarnaev brothers were “torn between two worlds,” as the cliché goes. It’s that Tamerlan, the elder brother, actively rejected American life. He had no American friends. He harangued other American Muslims for celebrating Thanksgiving and July 4. He was, in short, a “bad immigrant.”

(MORE: Terrorists and Mass Shooters Are More Similar Than We Thought)

All this has led to some jerking of knees and wringing of hands. Among the jerking are politicians like senators Rand Paul and Chuck Grassley, who now want to freeze immigration reform. The hand-wringers include commentators like John O’Sullivan of the National Review, who claims that immigrants have declining patriotic attachment to America and that liberal multiculturalism is to blame. The conclusion is that America needs to get better at pushing immigrants to assimilate and to lose their attachments to the old country.

This view is misguided in two ways. First, the fact is that immigrants in general are assimilating as rapidly as in previous waves of migration. The integration of the second generation of Hispanic and Asian immigrant families testifies to this. Their pride and participation in American society rivals that of second-generation Italians and Jews last century. There are of course angry, alienated young people in every immigrant community who can’t reconcile clashing cultural codes —especially those traumatized by war in their homelands and who fester in isolation here. But there are angry, alienated youth in every non-immigrant community. Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, and Oklahoma City testify to this.

(MORE: Do Immigrants ‘Drain’ Society?)

The second, deeper problem with the fear that America doesn’t do assimilation anymore is that, well, this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) assimilation. Newcomers today, from Chechnya or China, encounter an American culture that is more diverse and hybridized than the world has ever seen. That doesn’t mean newcomers aren’t Americanizing. It means that the baseline has changed. To assimilate in 1913 meant to Anglicize and to whitewash difference. To assimilate in 2013 means to mash up and remix diversity. That’s messier. It’s progress.

Where the worriers are right, though, is that this country’s schools, libraries and other institutions have to do better to ensure that everyone — native-born and immigrant alike — understands the history, origins, and common civic creed of this country. We have to ensure that our youth — native-born and immigrant alike — find constructive ways to belong when they’re feeling most isolated. And we have to resist the temptation to let the Tsarnaev brothers diminish our belief in the transcendent power of American citizenship.

(MORE: Don’t Pick on Immigrants: Re-Americanize Everyone)

Some immigrant advocates are dismayed that these petty terrorists acted just when momentum for immigration reform was building. But this forces us more seriously to consider the content of our citizenship — not just the legal status that one brother attained and another sought, but its moral and cultural meaning. After 9/11 some liberals asked, “Why do they hate us?” and were mocked by jingoistic conservatives for “blaming America.” Now conservatives like O’Sullivan are asking, “Why don’t they love us?” Instead of mockery, let’s unpack the question: Who’s they? What’s love? And who’s us?

They are our neighbors, classmates, workmates. Love of this country — true patriotism — means pushing America to do better by everyone who lives in America, so that fewer fall into lives of violent desperation. And “us” contains many more faiths, colors, and kinds than earlier generations knew. Some will respond to such complexity with fundamentalism. But for the most part, they will love us when they see themselves as us — as integrated co-creators of a purposeful American experiment. It’s up to all of us to make that happen.

MORE: TIME Cover Story: Not Legal, Not Leaving


The problem does not seems to be lack of Americanization, as the elder is married into a rich American family and the younger seems to have lots of friends in and out of college. In fact, they had more opportunity to get Americanized than other migrant populations for obvious reasons. The problem was to do with they getting radicalized either at home or during visits abroad.


Remember that the founders realised that they were fortunate to have a largely monocultural country. 

Alexander Hamilton was suspicious even of European immigrants, writing that "the influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.[viii] John Quincy Adams explained to a German nobleman that if Europeans were to immigrate, "they must cast off the European skin, never to resume it."[ix] 


Actually, the Tsarnaev brothers were hardly excluded from American society. Tamerlan married the daughter of a well-off American family and lived in their spacious home. Sure, if you look hard enough, you may find evidence of exclusion. There must have been slights and indifference, perhaps jokes about his first name, but such things don’t cause normal people to kill.

You have to remember gene-culture co-evolution. Groups from different cultures have different average propensities for violence. As anthropologist Peter Frost observes:

"In this new pacified environment, the violent male went from hero to zero. He became a criminal and was treated accordingly. Society now favored the peace-loving man who got ahead through work or trade. This process has been described for England and other parts of Western Europe by several academics, like Gregory Clark. With the establishment of strong States toward the end of the Dark Ages, and a subsequent pacification of social relations, the incidence of violence declined steadily. Violent predispositions were steadily removed from the population, either through the actual execution of violent individuals or through their marginalization and lower reproductive success. The meek thus inherited the earth (see previous post).'

Or rather a portion of it. In some parts of the earth, particularly remote mountainous areas, State control came very late. These are societies in the earliest stages of pacification. Male violence is a daily reality, which the State can only contain at best. Such is life in Chechnya … and elsewhere."


I though Time Magazine was a reputable news source. Is it too much to expect Mr Liu to look up studies on assimilation rates? 

Hispanic immigrants are not assimilating at the rate of previous waves of migrants.

Stephen Trejo and Jeffrey Groger studied the intergenerational progress of Mexican-American immigrants in their paper “Falling Behind or Moving Up?”

They discovered that third-generation Mexican-Americans were no more likely to finish high school than second-generation Mexican-Americans. Fourth-generation Mexican-Americans did no better than third.

If these results continue to hold, the low skills of yesterday’s illegal immigrant will negatively shape the U.S. work force into the 22nd century.

The failure to enforce the immigration laws in the 1990s and 2000s means that the U.S. today has more poorly skilled workers, more poverty and more workers without health insurance than it would have generated by itself.


I think part of the problem is all the hatred that a good portion of the population are engendering against groups other than their own. You only have to go around and read the comments on the tons of articles about immigration, you will find many examples of Xenophobic racism from readers calling immigrants and their children worse than rats. Until people understand that other human beings have a right to a dignified life just as everyone else, there will always be people that want to lash out. There is no justification for either, the people who commit the horrible acts of violence should be stopped by any means, but we also have to recognize that if we instigate against, demean, and oppress other people, there will always be someone ready to backlash and cause harm just to make a point, even it they do so against innocents who had nothing to do with their suffering.

NNNair 1 Like

I disagree. Not having american friends doesn't in any way explain their animosity to the american way- if that was the case... they could have left and gone elsewhere... more suited to their liking. Looking at things this way, you're effectively saying that to live in a nation that promotes individuality - "you can be yourself.. as long as its like everyone else!". 

Leftcoastrocky 2 Like

Timothy McVeigh?  Terry Nichols?  Ted Kaczynski? James Holmes?


How the heck did this article ever make it? I am an Indian. I don't celebrate thanksgiving and even don't go on "Dates". Just waiting to get married to a girl approved by my family. So does that mean someday I will go crazy.


@Porus The author specifically mentioned that Americanizing means more than, "Anglicizing and whitewashing difference.  To assimilate in 2013 means to mash up and remix diversity."  I'd say that means its cool if you aren't into every aspect of mainstream American culture and social code as long as you are interacting with people and open to some aspects and sharing your own culture with others.  Even if you've walled yourself off completely from American culture I don't see where the article says you'll necessarily turn violence and go crazy.  It was just saying we should strive to make everyone feel like they are part of the whole.

blackswede 2 Like

I don't totally agree with Mr. Liu's thoughts on "Americanization." Why should one immerse themselves with certain cultural aspects of a country that they feel are not constructive to a good education, eating well, and not joining the capitalistic greed that so many embrace? I was an expatriate American for 20 years. I lived in Sweden. My art education was in England, and Europe taught me much about the ignorance of my country. Furthermore, I was not looked at as an African American, but an American. I became "Americanized" more in Europe than at home. I got a better education. I learned more about the world, and added a new language. Many Americans believe that I am strange because I don't think like them. I am happy that I don't. As an artist (sculptor) I have been able to produce art that is not culturally constrained by my blackness or being an American. I like other cultures and the way that people think outside of the American box.

Jerry Harris

San Francisco.


@blackswede His whole point was mixing a matching cultures is ideal and you seem to embody that.  What is the issue?


@wandmdave @blackswede  Sir, these were not issues. They are facts. There might be mixing of cultures, but most of  these non-white cultures mix with themselves. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "In America, the Sunday church hour is the most segregated of the week." People of ethnic origin meet at the job, have lunch, and for the most part go their separate ways. There are exceptions. Yes, I am fully integrated in American culture. I live in a 96% white community because of work. I am a nationally recognized sculptor, but unless I am having an exhibition, or lecturing at a university art department, very few white people have invited me to their houses, but I have extended invitations to them. In fact, I have found out since my return to America (15 years ago ) more racism than when I left. Many white people still feel threaten by successful and intelligent black men.