US government takes steps to aid assimilation: Immigrants get aid in how to be Americans

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Aug 16 14:49:18 UTC 2007

Immigrants get aid in how to be Americans
US government takes steps to aid assimilation
By Karin Brulliard, Washington Post  |  August 12, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Hernan Ruiz, a concrete finisher from El Salvador,
raised his hand during a recent citizenship class at a Silver Spring,
Md., community center. Called on to answer a question about who elects
the US president, Ruiz carefully pronounced the answer, the electoral
college, a response he might need to know for his official
transformation into an American. After 22 years in the United States,
Ruiz said, he feels like a citizen already, but he knows that not
everyone sees immigrants who prefer to speak their mother tongue, as
he does, as Americans. To this, he responds that the US government
should demand that newcomers know English and help them learn it.

"This country was founded by immigrants; there should be a lot of
cultures," said Ruiz, 48. "But at the base is the government." Ruiz's
idea lies at the heart of a question that has recently entered the
national immigration debate, one that some researchers say is
important as new trends challenge old integration patterns: Should the
government encourage assimilation? The Bush administration is taking
steps to do so. The Task Force on New Americans, established by
executive order last year, recently presented initiatives that
supporters say will help immigrants "become fully American."

Among the government initiatives is a website to direct immigrants to
information on benefits, English classes, and volunteer work. Another
site offers resources for English and citizenship teachers. More than
12,000 copies of a tool kit containing civics flashcards and a welcome
guide in English and Spanish have been distributed to libraries. This
fall, the government has scheduled eight regional training conferences
for civics and citizenship instructors. The task force is to deliver
more recommendations to President Bush after convening discussions on
assimilation with immigrant advocates, teachers, and local officials
around the nation.

Immigrants "need to come here and feel as American as the founding
fathers," Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of US Citizenship and
Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security, said
during a press conference announcing the efforts.

Social scientists emphasize that assimilation has never been a
first-generation process. They rely on such measurements as language,
education, economic mobility, intermarriage, and geographic
distribution to assess assimilation, the test of which is not a loss
of ethnic identity, but parity with the majority. The massive wave of
immigrants a century ago made few gains, but its grandchildren were

The modern immigrant wave arrived after laws were relaxed in 1965, so
evidence of its generational progress remains incomplete, said Tomas
R. Jimenez, assistant professor of sociology at the University of
California at San Diego. But researchers say the newcomers and their
offspring seem to be following the broad historical pattern.

English acquisition is occurring at the same rate or faster, said
Ruben G. Rumbaut, professor of sociology at the University of
California at Irvine.

Although adult immigrants generally have a hard time learning English,
their children are commonly bilingual.

"By the third generation, it's over: English wins, even among Mexicans
in Southern California," said Rumbaut, whose research has found that
more than 95 percent of third- and later-generation Mexicans in
California prefer to speak English at home.

Still, there are indications that the assimilation equation has
changed, researchers said.

Thirty percent of immigrants are here illegally, about double the rate
15 years ago.

Illegal status limits economic mobility and public benefits. Fear of
being deported, particularly as tensions boil over illegal
immigration, means that "you're not likely to go out and integrate
much beyond what you must," said Michael Fix, codirector of the
National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy at the nonpartisan
Migration Policy Institute.

Drawn by demand for low-skill labor, immigrants are increasingly
settling in smaller cities and rural areas, and those doing so are
more likely to be poor, non-English-speaking, and illegal. It is
unclear whether that quickens integration by forcing contact with US
natives at the local park or slows it because the receiving
communities have little experience bringing immigrants into the fold,
Fix said.

Communications and travel revolutions have enabled immigrants to keep
closer ties to their homelands, perhaps fostering more transnational
identities. Unlike in the 1920s, when foreigners were all but
prevented from immigrating to the United States, today's immigrants
keep coming, and most speak one language, Spanish. That means that
generations can maintain contact with ancestral cultures and tongues.

And the institutions that prompted assimilation in the early 20th
century -- labor unions, a manufacturing economy, the military draft,
and political parties that once held sway in many cities -- are
weakened or gone, researchers say. Today's labor economy fills some,
but not all, of the void.

"Historically, certain institutions have been very important in terms
of bringing immigrants into American life around issues of politics,
American democracy, and jobs," said Gary Gerstle, a Vanderbilt
University history professor. "Immersion in American culture [alone]
doesn't bring you those things."

Fix said the trends do not indicate that the nation is on "the
threshold of a culture war." But the possibility of a permanent
underclass, if immigrants' descendants do not advance economically or
educationally, is too great to leave to chance, especially in an
economy that increasingly demands higher skills, he said.

For that reason, he and other scholars say, assimilation policy should
be as much a part of the immigration debate as rules on who comes and

Those scholars call for a national integration office to set and
measure goals and to serve as a liaison for local governments and
organizations that do the bulk of work with immigrants. Aggressive,
professional English programs also are a key, Fix said.

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