(Re)Defining Integration: The Case of Spain

Jessica Tollette wrote “(Re)Defining Integration: The Case of Spain” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.


"I'm happy to sign an integration contract, because we immigrants want nothing more than to be accepted, and that's what integration means, doesn't it? (...) But we say, Mr. Rajoy [Spanish Prime Minister], what do you mean by integrating? Which customs, which habits? Are they Andalusian ones or Catalan ones or Basque ones? Do they mean eating a Spanish tortilla, sleeping a siesta? I have no idea…”(1)  

In recent decades, migration to Europe has increased exponentially. New migration flows are facilitated by improvements in technology and transportation and, more recently, war, disaster, and economic crises. In 2015 alone, more than one million migrants traveled by land, sea, and air, often risking their lives to make their way to Europe. With the rapid and seemingly untenable level of new migrants, the political focus is on reception and border control, often to the detriment of longer-term solutions (2).  

While the European Union (EU) scrambles to close borders and process asylum applications, there are thousands of migrants waiting for sustainable integration protocols to be established in their new communities. Indeed, one overlooked aspect of Europe’s migration “crisis” (3) is that countries are not adequately equipped to integrate migrants into their society. But what do we mean when we say integration? 

The above excerpt is a quote from Kamal Rahmouni of the Association of Moroccan Immigrants in Spain, who spoke with reporter Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail to express his frustrations with the Spanish Prime Minister for the lack of clarity around Spanish initiatives to integrate immigrants. These frustrations are very clear, not only for Kamal, but also for Chinyere, Maite, Fouzia and countless other immigrants from all around the world who travel to Europe looking for a better life. What Kamal makes clear is that the ambiguity of the rhetoric around integration poses a challenge to immigrants who want to feel like a part of the receiving society, but don’t have a clear understanding of what this means in practice. 

As migration to Europe increases, there is a greater need for a more comprehensive definition of what integration should look like and how to achieve it. France, England, and Germany set the tone for the post-World War II European reaction to immigration with a range of policies that have either minimized or emphasized ethnic, cultural, and religious difference. These countries are also dealing with the backlash of “failures of integration,” and growing levels of inequality, discrimination, and right-wing politics. 

Being more explicit about what we mean when we talk about immigrant integration is a challenge that Europe faces as it continues to receive immigrants from ethnically, culturally, religiously, and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Empowering the voices of immigrants and civil society can help to clarify what we mean by integration and to mobilize constituents to take ownership over the process.   

Defining Integration 

According to the EU, integration is a bidirectional process based on mutual rights and obligations of non-national citizens, who are legal migrants, and the host society, which permits the full participation of immigrants (4). The EU considers integration to be a shared responsibility between immigrants and the host society. Nonetheless, the way to achieve integration and “mutual adaptation” varies across nations and even regions within nations. 

In 2008, the EU worked to further develop notions of integration through the creation and adoption of an “integration toolbox,” meant to improve integration policies. The “toolbox” included information about European values, access to employment, and language training. While developed at the EU-level, European states have autonomy to implement their integration policies at the national level. French Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux said: “Integration remains a national issue. The toolbox will therefore not lead to harmonization or constraints (…) It was our ambition to prepare a toolbox. The lesson of our work is that there is no single solution or miracle cure, but a range of practical measures to ensure successful integration." (5) As Hortefeux points out, the ways to achieve integration vary across nations because of the different contexts at the local level. 

The two dominant models of integration in Europe are assimilation and multiculturalism. Assimilation is the process by which immigrants “let go” of customs and cultural practices from one’s native country in favor of adopting the ideals and values of the host country (6). This process of ¨letting go¨ is often measured by factors such as: language acquisition, educational attainment, or intermarriage between immigrants and native citizens. While some European countries such as France opted for more assimilatory practices, several European countries including the United Kingdom, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden pushed for a multicultural model to integration. 

If we think about assimilation as abandoning one’s identity to adopt local norms and values, multiculturalism can be viewed as assimilation’s antithesis. Multiculturalism is an integration model that encourages immigrants to maintain their own unique cultural identity within the context of their new host society. In contrast to assimilation, multiculturalism attaches positive value to ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity and calls for equal recognition of different cultural groups in ways that are supported by state mandates (7). Societies promote multiculturalism by implementing policies that cater to specific ethno-cultural groups and permit them to maintain distinct cultural customs and practices. For example, in Finland, it is a constitutional right for ethnic minorities such as the Sami and Roma people to maintain and develop their own language and culture.  

Previous research on assimilation and multiculturalism in Europe  both critique and assess the success (and failure) of these models across different countries (8). This research also highlights the ways in which integration is complicated, contested, and variable. Within the current frameworks of assimilatory and multicultural integration models, there is no clear success story. This was made explicit during Angela Merkel’s now-famous 2010 speech when she said, “This [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed.” (9) Merkel was referring to the challenges to integrating Muslim Turks into German society and a recognition that so long as immigrants are granted the right to maintain separate ethnic enclaves, factors such as language acquisition and educational levels will remain difficult to equalize across groups.  

Re-Defining Integration, Empowering Immigrant Voices, Mobilizing Citizens 

Despite explicit definitions of the concept by the EU, scholars have debated immigrant integration since the EU’s inception. Most research on the topic focuses on how policy makers, political scientists, and sociologists grapple with integration; yet little is known about how immigrants make sense of integration, what it means, and concrete ways to integrate themselves into cultures that are often vastly different than their own (10). One way to address “the failures of integration” is to understand integration from the perspective of immigrants themselves. 

Interviews conducted with immigrants in Spain shed light on a more tangible articulation of integration that comes from the bottom up rather than the top-down approach imposed by government officials. Research looking at Nigerian, Dominican, and Moroccan immigrants in Madrid reveals that immigrants’ definitions of integration vary considerably by factors such as nationality, length of time in country, and cultural proximity to the host nation (11). The findings suggest that integration programs cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, programs should cater to the diverse needs of immigrant groups since language, culture, and religion can serve as factors that drive or deter immigrants from achieving integration. 

Chinyere,  a Nigerian immigrant living in Madrid, saw language acquisition as the means to achieving integration, “My definition [of integration] would be learning the language of the people if there are differences in language, as in my own case (12). The integration will include learning the language. Because when you don’t know the language, there’s no way you can integrate.” (13) Like Chinyere, most Nigerians found language acquisition to be the primary, and in some cases, the only requirement for integration. Nigerians are one of the more recent waves of immigrants to come to Spain and vary from the Spanish not only in language, but also in race and culture. For many of them, integration is about navigating daily life in a host country without being inhibited by linguistic challenges. 

Dominican immigrants have a longer history of migrating to Spain. The Dominican Republic is a former Spanish colony and therefore shares a common language and religion with Spanish citizens. For many Dominicans, integration is about adopting the values and cultural practices of the host society. They said things like, “To integrate is to adapt yourself to the host country (…) Don’t pretend to impose your customs that you have in your country on a foreign country.” (14) In this sense, integration is about modifying behaviors and practices to mimic the local culture. For many Dominican immigrants, integration is assimilation.

Moroccans, who differ from Spanish citizens in terms of language, culture, and most importantly, religion, rejected such Dominican notions of assimilation. They find that having rights and a sense of respect between Spanish citizens and immigrants is essential. Fouzia, a Moroccan immigrant living in Madrid, felt that integration was achieved when immigrants and natives were on equal political footing. She said; “First, integration has to work at a municipal level and then a state level with laws that facilitate the incorporation of the immigrant population with the same rights as Spanish people in every regard.” (15) Several Moroccans agreed with her and talked about equal rights and citizenship as central to integration. In this regard, integration is better addressed through policies mandating equal treatment of groups without expectations of behavioral adjustments on the part of immigrants. Their take on integration favors more of a multicultural model. 

For native Spaniards, integration wasn’t so much about a series of actions, but rather a sensation. Although many citizens stated that Islam was a barrier to integration or that learning Spanish facilitated integration, more than anything, Spanish people believed that integration was a sense of belonging. They considered an immigrant to be integrated if they felt at home in Spain. For example, Aurora, a Spanish woman thought that integration was normalcy. She said, “I suppose it’s normalcy. That you go out on the street or speak with whomever, and they don’t perceive cultural differences or linguistic differences (…) You go out on the street and regardless of where you are from, you are one more. I think that it is this. Normalcy.”(16)   

Interviews with three immigrant groups and native-born Spanish citizens in Madrid show that different groups have different needs, expectations, and desires for their own integration. While Moroccans favored multicultural practices, Dominicans felt integration was about assimilating. Nationality, length of time in the country, and cultural proximity to the host nation all shape perspectives on integration. It is important to empower immigrant communities to help craft their own integration pathways, but it is equally important to understand native citizens’ visions of integration and the role that they should play in the process. 

So often, integration policy is created in a vacuum, mandated by government officials who are out of touch with the everyday needs of immigrant communities.  This lack of awareness by the government can alienate immigrants and create a wedge between them and the communities in which they live. Speaking with immigrants and citizens in Madrid drew conclusions about integration from the bottom up, empowering immigrant voices and mobilizing citizens to be more conscious of their role in immigrant integration.  

If we can conceive of integration as a composite of four broad responses given by Moroccan, Nigerian, Dominican, and Spanish people in Madrid, then we can imagine a “spectrum of integration,” a four-part, sometimes non-linear process of 1) learning the language 2) understanding the culture, values, and customs of a country, 3) obtaining rights, and 4) ultimately feeling at home. By understanding how immigrants with ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic differences understand integration, policy makers, immigrants, and host societies can collectively work towards better outcomes.

Achieving Immigrant Integration 

Decades of implementing assimilatory and multicultural models with mixed success indicate that integration cannot solely be about relinquishing individual cultural practices in favor of blending into the host society or maintaining ethnic and cultural practices at the risk of exclusion. The “spectrum of integration” concept that I propose makes two contributions to current understandings of immigrant integration in Europe. 

First, it shows that much of what Europe is already doing is right. Offering immigrants free or subsidized means to learn the local language is important and echoes the needs of immigrants that come from countries that don’t share the same language. Providing resources that allow immigrants to learn about local culture, customs, and practices is helpful for those who wish to assimilate. Lastly, a commitment to immigrant rights such as creating legal pathways to citizenship is a valuable part of the immigration experience, particularly for immigrants like Kamal who want to be accepted and viewed as equals in their host societies.

However, if we truly understand integration as “bidirectional in nature” as the EU describes, then there should be two vantage points in the immigrant integration process. The first is that of the immigrants themselves and what they are expected to do to adapt to the host country. Above I mentioned learning the language, customs, and values of the receiving society as critical. But what exactly is the role of the host society in achieving immigrant integration? 

Here, the notion of a “spectrum of integration” makes an important modification to current practices of integration. Although integration definitions by Nigerians, Moroccans, and Dominicans in Madrid echo integration protocols found within assimilationist and multiculturalist models of integration, interviews with native citizens suggest that integration is not just about what you do, it is about how you feel. Recognizing the importance of a sense of belonging adds a layer of nuance to traditional models of integration and provides an avenue for native citizens to partake in immigrant integration. 

Local, regional, and national governments as well as civil society should play an active role in cultivating safe and welcoming spaces for immigrants. To do so, native citizens can challenge their own stereotypes and prejudices by getting to know their immigrant neighbors and colleagues. Rather than mocking immigrants for not knowing how to say something, teach them. When you see someone struggling in the supermarket or at the doctor’s office, explain how to say it in the local language. Most importantly, try to empathize with immigrants’ situation and treat them with respect. By increasing awareness of the circumstances from which many immigrants are migrating, host communities can go a long way in being inclusive and making newcomers feel welcome.

Additionally, creating and designing public spaces for exchange can help to facilitate a sense of community, joint ownership, and shared responsibility to the community. For example, in a multicultural neighborhood in the center of Madrid, the community has built an urban park and garden to be shared and maintained with the cooperation of the community’s residents, in which 33% of the neighborhood is foreign-born (17). There are several other examples of how physically creating space such as community centers or parks can “make room” for interaction, exchange, and shared experiences between immigrants and native citizens.

At the government level, there can be mandatory cultural sensitivity training for medical and public health staff, law-enforcing bodies, and educational professionals. This can be as simple as workshops on the customs and habits of primary sending countries, or learning about the customs and practices of Islam that may affect Muslim immigrants in their workplace or academic environment. Furthermore, there is something essential about the physical organization of a host city or country that can be critical to the success of immigrant integration. This can include government interventions to limit residential isolation of certain immigrant groups who are prone to exclusion. Interventions can range from mandating mixed housing units or creating public housing that has a percentage of occupancy reserved for noncitizens.  

Looking Forward

Since 2015, Europe has faced unprecedented levels of irregular migration with no clear roadmap of how to address the influx of economic migrants and refugees in a sustainable way. Politicians have scrambled to address reception, humanitarian aid, and border control without an explicit, long-term plan for the socio-cultural integration of immigrants into their new host societies. Longer-term strategies to address immigrant integration must go beyond border control and think carefully about cultivating the complete integration of immigrants who plan to make a home in Europe. 

In 2017, there continues to be a lack of clarity around what we mean by integration and what the practical and sustainable solutions might be to failed integration policies. Looking beyond traditional models of assimilation and multiculturalism may provide an answer to this. Empowering the voices of immigrants and civil society to help craft new integration protocols may allow for more effective approaches to bi-directional involvement in immigrant integration. 

In speaking to immigrants and locals in Madrid, we can see that immigrant integration in Europe is going in the right direction. Not knowing the language, understanding the local culture, or having rights are fundamental challenges to integration and many policies at the local, regional, and national level are working to address these. However, data from a diverse group of immigrants reveals that there are differences and divisions across groups as to what integration is and what it should look like. 

Taking into consideration the diversity of immigrant populations and their unique needs is critical. Additionally, how you feel is just as important as what you do and civil society can do more to facilitate a sense of belonging for immigrants. Getting it right may take a few missteps, but learning from mistakes of the past and moving forward with optimism and a level of openness to the new will be critical to reimagining Europe as a more diverse and pluralistic society. 

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Jessica Tollette isis a PhD candidate in the department of Sociology at Harvard University where she focuses on race and immigration. Prior to graduate school, she previously worked as a management consultant at the Monitor Group, where she led the undergraduate diversity recruiting efforts for the firm. Jessica was also a Fulbright Scholar to Spain, where she conducted her dissertation research on race and immigrant integration in Madrid. She received her BA in Communication and Hispanic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.


1. Doug Saunders, "Spain Loves Immigration, But Finds the Immigrants A Challenge," The Globe and Mail (Canada), Mar. 8, 2008, accessed Sept. 13, 2016. 

2. Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan and Susan Fratzke, "Europe’s Migration Crisis in Context: Why Now and What Next," migrationpolicy.org, Sept. 24, 2015.

3. There is a broader debate about rather employing the term “crisis” is the right way to describe the migrant influx to Europe. I use the term crisis in the article to reflect mainstream media’s framing of the matter. 

Nicholas De Genova and Martina Tazzioli, “Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of ‘the Crisis’ in and of ‘Europe,’” Europe at a Crossroads: Managed Inhospitality, accessed Dec. 6, 2016, http://nearfuturesonline.org/europecrisis-new-keywords-of-crisis-in-and-of-europe.

4. “A Common Agenda for Integration – Frameworks for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals in the European Union,” EUR-Lex, Sept 1, 2005, accessed Sept. 12, 2016, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52005DC0389.

5. "Immigration: EU Adopts Integration Toolbox,” Europolitics Social (English), Nov. 12, 2008, accessed Sept. 13, 2016. 

6. William Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole, The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups Vol. 3, JSTOR, 1945, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20147072.pdf.

7. Ruud Koopmans, "Multiculturalism and immigration: A Contested Field in Cross-National Comparison," Annual Review of Sociology 39 (2013): 147-169.

8. Richard Alba, “Bright vs. Blurred Boundaries: Second-Generation Assimilation and Exclusion in France, Germany, and the United States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28, no. 1 (2005): 20–49;

Irene Bloemraad, Anna Korteweg, and Gökçe Yurdakul, “Citizenship and Immigration: Multiculturalism, Assimilation, and Challenges to the Nation-State,” Sociology 34, no. 1 (2008): 153; 

Rogers Brubaker, “The Return of Assimilation? Changing Perspectives on Immigration and Its Sequels in France, Germany, and the United States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24, no. 4 (2001): 531–548.

9. Matthew Weaver, "Angela Merkel: German Multiculturalism Has 'Utterly Failed'" The Guardian, Oct. 17, 2010, accessed Sept. 14, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-german-multiculturalism-failed.

10. Peter Scholten, Framing Immigrant Integration: Dutch Research-Policy Dialogues in Comparative Perspective, Amsterdam University Press, 2011.

11. Jessica D. Tollette, "Noticeably Invisible: A Study of Race, Policy and Immigrant Incorporation in Present-Day Spain," PhD diss., Harvard University, 2017. 

12. To protect the identity of the respondents, all names associated with the quotations are pseudonyms unless otherwise noted. 

13. Personal Interview on Nov. 21, 2014.

14. Personal Interview on May 11, 2015.  

15. Personal Interview on June 22, 2015. 

16. Tollette, "Noticeably Invisible." 

17.“Foreign-born population in the city of Madrid. Provisional Data as of January 2016,” ¡Madrid!, accessed Dec. 7, 2016, http://www.madrid.es/UnidadesDescentralizadas/UDCEstadistica/Nuevaweb/Publicaciones/Extranjeros/julio2016/C42216.pdf.


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