The half-arrival trap: inter-generational impacts government policies have on immigrant integration and assimilation

The opportunities and challenges of integration and assimilation look very different for children of immigrants as it does for their immigrant families. The contemporary experiences of migrants in the process of integration and assimilation are redolent to those of migrants in the past; immigrants today face opportunities and challenges like those that were faced by migrants in the 20th century. The documentary Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance (Benguigui, 1997) speaks to the experiences of migrants and their families who migrated to France during the country’s reconstruction period from the 1960s to 1970s. The book Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world (Saunders, 2011) explains the opportunities for integration and assimilation presented to educated children of migrants today. Each of these references explains why there is such a disparity of experiences between children of immigrants and their immigrant families, which has more to do with government institutions and programs than migrants themselves.

Around the world, arrival cities are often informal slums or monoethnic minority communities located on the outer fridges of major cities. In the book, Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world, Doug Saunders (2011) describes arrival cities as places where newcomers try to establish new lives by integrating themselves socially and economically into the fabric of the communities in which they move. But for undocumented migrants, the dream to save and invest, and improve one’s economic status by moving out of arrival cities and into cities with greater opportunities for employment in industries that will propel them into the middle class may take years, and even generations. Saunders argues that migrants need not move to seek such opportunities: with proper investment in social services arrival cities can generate a prosperous middle class. However, due to gaps in social service provisions, arrival cities remain a trap for many migrants, especially for immigrant parents and those who are undocumented.

Take for instance the case of Los Angeles, which is a successful arrival city in its own right. Saunders considers Los Angeles the “Great American Arrival City” (Saunders, 2011, p. 76) because migrants living and working in the city send remittances back home at a much larger scale than most any other place in the world. He also examines why demographers consider Los Angeles a “gateway city”: when children of immigrants receive an education in America they move to other neighborhoods, fulfilling the cyclical process of successful arrival cities, which is a continuous process of “arrival, upward mobility, and exodus” (Saunders, 2011, p. 82). Exodus, Saunders explains, serves as an upward social and economic indicator for residents (immigrants and children of migrants), yet is a downward trend for the arrival city (community). In other words, if more children of migrants leave the arrival city than new migrants enter, disequilibrium occurs between the influx of disadvantaged newcomers and the exodus of educated, upwardly mobile residents. Therefore, at continual disequilibrium, this process degenerates the arrival city’s economic status over time.

Exodus of the educated, upwardly mobile children of immigrants is not the issue. Children have every right to seek better opportunities of employment elsewhere, which is especially important for children of migrants trying to break into the middle class and help support their families. Should their immigrant parents not be afforded the same opportunities in their communities as well? Immigrants deserve to escape the plight of half-arrival and attain better integration and socioeconomic equality as well. This means cities such as Los Angeles should provide them with the proper tools and services necessary to escape half-arrival. Often, however, this isn’t the case. Saunders (2011) explains that too often the wrong investments are made in arrival cities:

Rather than getting the tools of ownership, education, security, business creation, and connections to the wider economy, [arrival cities] are too often treated as destitute places that need non-solutions, such as social-workers, public-housing blocks, and urban-planned redevelopments (p. 83).

Disinvestment, or the investment in the wrong types of services necessary for immigrants to thrive is a failure of arrival cities like Los Angeles. This phenomenon leaves the hopes and dreams immigrant parents have of integration, complete-arrival, and breaking into the middle class in the hands of their children, or their children’s children, depending on access to services available. Of course, parents should be able to pass their dreams and legacies onto their children, but it is unfair when improper investments or disinvestments by the government prevent the dream from remaining within their grasp.

The phenomenon of half-arrival that many immigrant families experience in arrival cities today seems to echo the experience of migrants and their families who migrated to France in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically during reconstruction after WWII. The documentary Immigrant memories: North African Inheritance explains that at this time, the French government implemented economic immigration policies in anticipation that migrants brought over to work in manufacturing plants would either eventually integrate or return to their home countries. What ended up happening was that these economic migrants – who were mostly men – remained in the French workforce for years and without access to adequate housing, family reunification, or livable wages. Absent adequate economic policies and provision of social services, migrants could never build a good life, so they remained isolated and impoverished in France. One migrant factory worker from Morocco expressed on camera that he sent remittances back home to his family in hopes that his children would one day succeed: he sacrificed everything, even abandoned his family and culture back home to work in France (Benguigui, 1997).

When the French government switched from economic immigration to systematic immigration, wives and children were finally able to rejoin their husbands and fathers in France. However, family reunification was uncoordinated, and living conditions were horrible: the French government poorly provisioned social housing for migrant families and children were bereft of an education in France because schools were too far away from their residences. Nonetheless, children were growing up in France, and ascribing to French culture. One Algerian woman reported that children of Algerian immigrants growing up in France could not speak Arabic, which was their family’s native language. This meant that they could not communicate with family members back home. Despite how well children fully assimilated into French culture, they were still considered outcasts in France and were denied integration. This suggests that perhaps discursive spaces and symbols, rather than physical borders, separated them from their native counterparts. Additionally, due to uncoordinated policy efforts and poor planning by the French government, Algerian immigrant families and immigrant families of other nationalities remained abysmally trapped in half-arrival for generations (Benguigui, 1997).

Across political boundaries, continents, and time these two examples of failed processes of inter-generational immigrant integration and assimilation exemplify the saying, “Everything that is old is new again.” However, the symbiotic relationship between historical and present government immigration policies does not have to be one characterized by repeating mistakes. The story could be quite different. To change this narrative, however, policymakers would need to focus on developing policies and programs that help undocumented migrants fully integrate and assimilate into new communities. Absent policies for better integration and assimilation, many migrants – with the wildest dream of starting fresh in a new country – once they arrive, currently (as they have historically) must look to their children or their children’s children for hopes for a better life, not to the government institutions that are supposed to facilitate the transition between arrival and full integration and assimilation. The half-arrival trap that millions of immigrants face, especially economic migrants who were encouraged by national governments of receiving countries to come rebuild their economies and labor force only to reject and dehumanize them, is arguably one of the biggest, preventable immigration policy failures of any nation-state and local authority. noun_766494-1



Benguigui, Y. (1997). Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance [Documentary]. Paris: Canal +

Saunders, D. (2011). Arrival city: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world. Vintage.

Source image: FirstYear2017