Experts: U.S. must help immigrants assimilate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jan 19 15:46:07 UTC 2009

Experts: U.S. must help immigrants assimilate
Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, January 19, 2009

(01-18) 18:31 PST -- The United States has one of the world's most
generous immigration policies, but it has done too little to help new
immigrants fit into society, scholars and advocates say.
Experts: U.S. must help immigrants assimilate 01.19.09

Now, at the end of President Bush's eight years in office, a federal
task force he convened is echoing those concerns, saying, "Government
can do more to help newcomers learn English, learn about America and
promote integration across our nation."

On the eve of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, with
immigrants arriving in high numbers and anxiety in some quarters about
a fracturing American identity, the issue is pressing, but some
observers wonder whether Obama will take up the issue or put it behind
more urgent concerns.

"It's a roadmap for future administrations on how to strengthen the
assimilation of new Americans," said the report's lead author, Alfonso
Aguilar, in his final days as chief of the Office of Citizenship at
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The report, "Building an Americanization Movement for the Twenty-first
Century," released late last month, noted that "while immigration is a
federal responsibility, immigrants do not settle in the federal
sphere, but rather in cities and local communities."

Many examples in San Francisco bear that out. At the Chinatown campus
of City College, thousands of immigrant adults attend classes in
English and civics each week, preparing for their citizenship exams.
The scene is repeated at eight other campuses around the city, where
vocational classes also teach immigrants and others job skills to help
them join the American workforce.

In San Francisco and across the Bay Area and the nation, community
colleges and adult schools are on the front lines helping foreigners
become full participants in American society, but they're stretched to

"We always have waiting lists," said Joanne Low, Chinatown campus
dean. "Our funding formula results in us getting less money each year
for civic participation."

More needs to be done
Aguilar emphasized that integration is happening, as evidenced by high
rates of naturalization, homeownership, English acquisition and
marriage outside an immigrant's ethnic group. But as the nation
becomes more diverse and new arrivals disperse into communities that
don't have a history of incorporating immigrants, more needs to be
done, he said.

"We should live by a model of diversity within unity," Aguilar said.
"While diversity ... enriches our cultural fabric, it's unity that
keeps America successful: a strong, thriving democracy where the rule
of law prevails."

Bush called for the study of immigrant integration in 2006 as part of
his push for comprehensive immigration reform, Aguilar said. But those
who were disappointed that the outgoing president failed to achieve an
overhaul of the nation's immigration laws were skeptical about the
timing of the report's release.

"I appreciate the fact that the Bush administration is putting this
out there, but it's appalling and frustrating ... that we did not see
more tangible support for the integration of immigrants during his
time as president," said Janet Murguia, president of the National
Council of La Raza.

Some immigration scholars say the United States, unlike other Western
democracies, puts very little effort into bringing immigrants into the
American political process. Canada, for example, sends a letter to
every immigrant when he or she becomes eligible to apply for
citizenship, according to UC Irvine political science Professor Louis
DeSipio. The United States does not.

"We individualize the responsibility and don't see the state as having
any responsibility. Consequently you see wide differences in the
propensity to naturalize on a national origin and a class basis. That
is problematic in a nation like ours that bases itself on the notion
of e pluribus unum," he said, referring to the Latin motto "out of
many, one."

A call for volunteers
The task force recommends that the next president use the bully pulpit
to encourage volunteers to get involved through churches and community
organizations. But it does not recommend a lot of new federal

"We're not calling for new entitlement program for immigrants," Aguilar said.

But professionals like Low, who struggle to provide English
instruction and citizenship education, were disappointed.

"What are they proposing in terms of funding?" Low asked. "I thought
it would be more concrete: 'There's money for this' or 'This is going
to happen.' ... Instead, it was vague guidelines."

Others wanted to see the proposal go beyond civic integration to
better incorporate immigrants into the economy.

"Given the fact that we're about to see the stimulus package roll out
the door, this is one logical place to spend those funds," said
Michael Fix, co-director of a project on immigrant integration at the
Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "I would like to see greater
alertness to the need to integrate workforce training and language
training ... because immigrants are such a critical share of the labor
force and they're going to have to play a role in pulling us out of
this recession."

Fix also called for more federal investment in English-language
instruction, something he predicted could ramp up during the Obama
administration if Congress approves immigration reform that offers
legal status to some of the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented

Perhaps the most important part of Bush's legacy in incorporating
immigrant families is his inclusion of tough accountability provisions
for teaching "limited-English" students under the No Child Left Behind
Act, Fix said.

"It will eventually improve instruction and performance in that
population, improve graduation rates and, in the end, improve life
outcomes," he said.

The most surprising finding of the two-year study, which included
meetings with community leaders across the country, Aguilar said, was
the need to better teach U.S.-born citizens that in this pluralistic
democracy, all immigrants can become fully American, regardless of
their language, skin color or country of birth.

"Integration is a two-way street: It's important to require immigrants
to integrate, but it's also important for society to be welcoming," he
said. "It's not only immigrants that have to understand the principles
of American democracy - our own citizens must as well."

Online resource
To read "Building an Americanization Movement for the Twenty-first
Century," go to:

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