Once more on the debate about US language policy...

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon May 22 12:39:15 UTC 2006


>>From the Los Angeles Times
Stirring the Pot, Focusing on the Melting
Divisions persist in the ongoing immigration debate, but lawmakers are
united in pushing for a traditional American aim -- assimilation.

By Maura Reynolds
Times Staff Writer

May 21, 2006

WASHINGTON If the Senate debate over immigration has achieved little else,
it has turned up the heat under the American melting pot. The chamber
seems poised to pass by the end of this week a bill that would toughen
border security, establish a guest worker program and provide citizenship
opportunities to most illegal immigrants. Because of disagreements with
the House, whether such legislation ultimately emerges from Congress
remains highly uncertain. But both in their rhetoric and their votes,
senators have sent a clear message that they are determined to reinforce
what some view as the nation's traditional bargain with immigrants:
Newcomers are welcome, but they must assimilate.

"In many ways the most important issue in the entire immigration debate
more than border security, more than guest workers is how many new people
can we allow to come into our country and still make sure they become
Americans?" Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. "A lot of the uneasiness
and emotion over this immigration debate is from Americans who are afraid
we are going to change the character of our country." Throughout much of
U.S. history, citizens have looked at incoming waves of immigrants and
wondered whether they would or could assimilate learn English, profess
allegiance to their new country and adopt its values over those of their

Of late, the Senate has become a forum for a replay of this discussion. It
was heard most clearly last week during arguments over whether to
designate English as the country's "national language." "We're having a
great debate in this country, long overdue what does it mean to be an
American, and what unites us and what divides us," Sen.  Lindsey Graham
(R-S.C.) said on the chamber's floor. "As we debate how to assimilate
[illegal immigrants], we need to make it clear that it is the policy of
our government to enhance our common language, English."

Two amendments asserting the primacy of the English language in the United
States passed the Senate on Thursday. One declares that English is the
"national" language, the other that it is the country's "common and
unifying language." Though senators are continuing to parse the
differences between those phrases, the overall message to immigrants is
the same: "We are trying to make an assimilation statement," said Graham,
who voted for both. The pro-assimilation refrain was heard in the
background of other debates as well. For instance, the Senate approved an
amendment offered by Sen.  Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to lower the ceiling on
the number of potential guest workers permitted in the nation from 325,000
to 200,000.

"Underlying the vote on the Bingaman amendment was the fear that we just
couldn't absorb that many new guest workers," Alexander said. "It's not
that we didn't need them or couldn't put them to work. It's that we'd be
creating enclaves of people who have allegiance to another country." One
reason the assimilation issue is coming to the fore is the recognition
that in raw numbers, Latino immigrants legal and illegal constitute the
largest wave of immigration in American history, according to government
figures. As a percentage of the population, however, there are fewer
foreign-born residents in the country than in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries about 12% now compared with about 15% then.

"What's happened with [Latino immigration] is that the pace has been so
rapid and the numbers are so large that there has not been time yet for
accommodation and acculturation," said F. Chris Garcia, a political
science professor at the University of New Mexico. "When you get such a
huge influx, it tends to upset the equilibrium a little bit." But if the
influx diminishes, the same processes will probably take place, Garcia
said. Scholars such as Garcia argue that the term "assimilation" is a
misnomer, suggesting that immigrants lose their cultural identity when
they become Americans. Instead, they say that Americanized immigrants tend
to hold on to certain traditions from their homeland, such as religion and
cuisine, even while learning English and adapting to the cultural

In response, American culture tends to adopt bits of immigrant culture as
well, notably foods as well as celebrations, such as Cinco de Mayo. "Among
many ethnic and racial groups, 'assimilation' can be a bad word because it
has the connotation of losing all of one's native culture, selling out and
being ashamed of your native culture," Garcia said. "It's clear that total
assimilation is not what we have had in America." Whatever you call it,
some form of assimilation or incorporation still takes place, these
experts argue, at least as fast as it did for previous generations of
immigrants. Louis DeSipio, a political science professor who studies
Latino society and politics at UC Irvine, said he believed that because of
the mass media and rapid technological innovations, this wave of
immigrants was assimilating faster than previous ones.

DeSipio added that according to his research and that of others, the
desire of Latino immigrants to learn and speak English has not flagged as
the immigrant population has grown. "Immigrants want their children to
learn Spanish, but not to the exclusion of English," he said. Frank
Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration
Forum, said, "There's no controversy in immigrant communities about
learning English. There's a controversy in the nonimmigrant community,
where there is a suspicion that immigrants don't want to learn English."

If, as expected, the Senate approves its version of an immigration bill,
it must be reconciled with a House bill passed in December. The prospects
for compromise are murky, at best, because the House bill focuses solely
on border security. Whatever the outcome of the legislative fight, in
social terms, Congress has spoken. "I think it's very important that
people who want to spend the rest of their lives in this country become
identified with American ideals," Sen.  Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.
"It's important people learn to speak the language, learn to respect the
democracy, want to abide by the rule of law and that this country
shouldn't be little ghettos." Learning English, Feinstein said, "is
symbolic of buying into that ideal."

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