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The Forgotten Immigration Need By: Marc Levin and Winfield Myers
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 02, 2004


In unveiling his immigration reform plan, President Bush stated that America needs an immigration system that "live[s] up to our highest ideals" and "reflects the American dream." Yet, while the President deserves credit for broaching the issue of normalizing illegal immigrants and making it a central part of his State of the Union address, both Bush and his critics have overlooked the need for assimilation. Including an assimilation component in immigration reform is essential if our new workers are also to be new Americans.

Absent a workable plan for assimilating the mostly Mexican immigrants at whom the legislation is aimed, our nation's immigration problem will be redefined rather than resolved. Large numbers of workers with little knowledge of English, a poor grasp of civil society, and no prospect for improved education will remain outside the mainstream of American economic and cultural life. The American dream of owning a home and sending one's children to college - in short, of joining the middle class - can't be met by a populace trapped in a subculture of low expectations, low wages, and little hope.

Assimilation is especially urgent today because for decades America's elite institutions - universities, the media, nongovernmental organizations, churches, and federal bureaucracies - have devalued the concept of citizenship even as they fanned the flames of ethnic separatism under the rubric of so-called multiculturalism. This danger is multiplied in our post-9-ll world, in which America's enemies would like nothing better than to this nation become Balkanized along ethnic lines.

Multiculturalism emphasizes racial, ethnic, and cultural differences instead of shared values. This dogma is particularly pervasive on college campuses where there are often separate organizations, dormitories, and even commencements for different groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

The most extreme example of ethnic separatism afflicting the Hispanic community is a group called MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), which not coincidentally was founded in 1969 at the height of negative attitudes towards America at home. This organization, which boasts hundreds of chapters at high schools and colleges throughout the nation, has as its motto "for our race everything, for those outside our race nothing" and advocates ceding Southwestern U.S. states to Mexico. 

Radical multiculturalism arose in the 1960's, the same time that Watergate and the Vietnam War fostered a deep cynicism about America that engulfed a large segment of the country, especially the education system. One symptom of this malaise is an overemphasis on America's faults, while the histories and current policies of other nations are sanitized.

Unfortunately, radical multiculturalism and cynicism about America's history and institutions have engendered an ethnic separatism that views America as a land of oppression and racism. Assimilation, once a progressive cause built on faith in the common man's educability and the sanctity of the individual, has been falsely stigmatized as a reactionary attempt to squash ancestral heritage and enforce a bland, repressive common culture. 

The costs of America's failure to assimilate immigrants have been empirically confirmed. In 2001, Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government published the results of the largest survey of Americans' civic engagement ever conducted. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey concluded that the gap in civic engagement among citizens is more than twice as large in ethnically diverse, high-immigrant cities like Houston and Los Angeles than in less diverse locales such as Montana and New Hampshire.

Researchers found that people in more diverse communities were less likely to trust others, less likely to vote or otherwise participate in public affairs, more likely to feel isolated, and more likely to associate only with members of their own class. Significantly, the study also revealed that the level of civic engagement in a community and the equality of the distribution of its assets were strongly correlated with residents' evaluation of their happiness and quality of life.

The evidence from abroad is also compelling. Germany's utter failure to integrate guest workers from Turkey and other less developed nations has resulted in vast ghettoes that spawn social dysfunction and crime. This, in turn, has stimulated the rise of radical white supremacist political movements. Similarly, France's Arab population is largely relegated to slums that are chiefly responsible for the country's skyrocketing violent crime rate.

Fortunately, Americans' willingness to accept Mexicans as fellow-citizens far exceeds what most Germans or Frenchmen are willing to offer the Turks and Arabs who have lived among them for decades. No doubt part of this acceptance stems from the fact that most Mexicans, like most Americans, are Christian. Yet it also underscores the aforementioned faith that Americans have in their own country's ability to absorb and assimilate immigrants from around the world.

The faith is well placed, as America became the envy of the world by successfully assimilating generations of immigrants up until the last several decades when radical multiculturalism and a reluctance to proudly transmit our civic traditions intervened.  While it may not be feasible to fully assimilate seasonal migrant workers, there are risks in treating broader groups of immigrants as disposable labor, including the improbability that they will return home voluntarily or be expelled after as many as eight years in America. Instead, the President should incorporate policy changes that will restart America's engine of assimilation.

First, nothing is more central to assimilation than learning English. It is essential if recent immigrants and new citizens are to fully participate in American democracy, serve in the military, and move up the economic ladder. Bilingual education should be reformed to become a temporary immersion program rather than a permanent part of a student's education. President Clinton's executive order requiring government forms to be printed in myriad languages created a disincentive to learn English and should be repealed. All applicants for permanent legal status and citizenship should be required to take free English classes.

Additionally, we should implement mandatory free civics classes for new immigrants and an enhanced civics curriculum in our schools. Mexico, like most other countries in central and South America, has a long-standing culture of political corruption and a socialist tradition in which many people look to government instead of the private sector to secure their livelihood from cradle to grave. New immigrants must learn about America's founding documents and civic traditions, and their role in sustaining a free society.

We should also enact school vouchers. A study by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute has shown that vouchers promote racial and ethnic integration by allowing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend mostly white private schools.

By adding an assimilation component to his immigration proposal, President Bush can address the legitimate concerns some conservatives have about the cultural effects of unassimilated immigration while also making clear that the America's recent difficulty in assimilating immigrants is due largely to our own societal and policy failings, not the ethnicity of today's immigrants.

Some benefits will come of Bush's proposal even without assimilation measures. For example, conferring some legal status on the 10 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S. will aid law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations of accounting for as many Americans as possible through valid identification. However, our long-term economic and national security challenge posed by an aging and declining domestic population will be countered to the greatest extent if immigrants are assimilated so they can earn more, pay more in taxes because of a larger income, own a home in which to raise children, and serve in the military.

The President's plan for resolving America's immigration problem should be ambitious enough to insist on assimilation as a fundamental obligation - and opportunity - for new arrivals. By providing the resources necessary for bringing immigrants into America's economic and cultural life, the administration would allow the paradox of the American experience - progress within a political and cultural tradition - to shape the lives of millions of people we already rely upon in our daily lives. The war on terror called for bold leadership, and this president responded. Surely the dangers of a large, alienated, and unassimilated population within our borders demand leadership of a similar caliber.

Marc Levin practices appellate law in Austin, TX. Levin can be reached at mrmarclv@aol.com.
Winfield Myers is principal author and editor of Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth about America's Top Schools (Eerdmans, 1998; 2001. Myers can be reached at wjcmyers@mindspring.com.


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