German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech this past weekend that "multikulti" - multiculturalism - has "utterly failed" in Germany. Given what happened last time Germany stressed cultural uniformity, that announcement may be uncomfortable for some. However, it may still be worth examining the underlying issues Merkel is addressing.
With Germany's postwar economic boom came labor shortages. As a solution, Germany began guest worker - "gastarbeiter" - programs, recruiting labor from economically lagging countries around the mediterranean. Initially, the intent was that guest workers would return home after a period of work, but eventually, many settled in Germany instead, living in barracks or ghettos separated from most of German society and restricted to work that the Germans themselves were not interested in doing.
As the guest workers settled and began having families, Germany established a policy of multiculturalism. Some guest worker communities - in particular the Spanish and Vietnamese - largely integrated into society nonetheless, but others - in particular the Turkish, the largest group, - maintained a separate culture and language, and continued to live in separate ghetto neighborhoods, with little intermixing with the traditional German culture.
The cultural divides seem to have only sharpened over the past decade or two, as the Turkish gastarbeiter maintained their own religion and language, established their own schooling, and supplemented German law with sharia law and even honor killings. The social tensions have now reached the point where Merkel felt it necessary to declare multiculturalism a failure.
It strikes me that the U.S. is going down a similar path, using immigrants, mostly illegal, to do the work that Americans don't seem to be interested in doing. In regions with many such immigrants, they often live in separate neighborhoods with poor quality housing just as the German gastarbeiter did. It behooves us to think about the ways in which we may be able to avoid further development along the German gastarbeiter path, lest the consequent cultural divides and social tensions affect us as well.
On Merkel's speech:
One extreme consequence:
The U.S., with respect to latin American illegal immigrants, is about two decades behind the Germans with their Turkish gastarbeiter; the Turkish started going to Germany in large numbers in the 1960s, when U.S. immigration was still largely from overseas groups from Europe and Asia that have since assimilated well.
It's not just the economic mobility, though. The Spanish and Vietnamese gastarbeiter assimilated well in the second generation; the Turkish did not. I can believe the Spanish might have been less discriminated against than the Turks, but that doesn't seem to be the case for the Vietnamese.
The correct expanation must explain not only the immigrant populations that fail to assimilate, but also those that succeed.
My personal belief is that failure to adopt the local language has a lot to do with it; language differences make communication difficult and thus tend to accentuate cultural and economic splits. However, that may also be a symptom as well as a cause.
The observable differences between the different cases has to do with conditions back in the home country. The Spanish economy eventually improved to the point that going back to Spain became a competitive economic option. The Vietnamese probably didn't dare go back for fear of political persecution, though I could be wrong about that. The Turks could go back, but only to the same poor economic conditions that caused them to leave in the first place.
The other possible difference is a policy of assimilation - U.S. immigration used to focus on the path to citizenship that required learning English and learning American history and civics - versus a policy of cultural separation, whether in the form of explicit multiculturalism as in Germany or simply sweeping the cultural differences under the rug as in the U.S.