Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2004 / 18 Teves, 5764
The decline of assimilation
The confusions and uncertainties of President Bush's immigration plan were nicely captured in the New York Times's
descriptions of it. On Wednesday, a front-page Times headline announced: "Plan Effectively Offers Amnesty Fight Is Seen
in Congress." On Thursday, the paper's lead editorial emphasized that "the president's guidelines clearly do not constitute a
sweeping amnesty. . . . It is a long way from that."
Obviously, Bush's proposal raises more questions than it answers. It would temporarily legalize the status of millions of
illegal but employed immigrants by making them eligible for renewable three-year work permits. How often could those
permits be renewed? What would happen when they expired? No one seems to know.
The president says that under his plan, illegal immigrants would be allowed to apply for permanent legal residence a green
card and eventual citizenship "in the normal way." On the other hand, he also says they will be given no advantage over
would-be immigrants who haven't broken the law. Considering how long the wait for a green card can be, doesn't that mean
that illegals signing up for the new program would have no realistic hope of qualifying for permanent residence? And that being
the case, won't many of them slip back into illegality after their temporary permit expires? Or simply avoid the program and
the danger of entanglement with immigration officials altogether?
Give the president credit for addressing an issue that most politicians have refused to touch how to handle the 10 million
or so illegal immigrants living in the United States, most of them fearful of being deported and therefore easy to exploit. Credit
him, too, with acknowledging that homeland security is badly compromised when hundreds of thousands of people enter the
country illegally each year. He is still a long way from showing that he has come up with a proposal that can actually solve both
of those problems.
What to do about illegal immigration, how to control the borders, whether the number of lawful immigrants permitted each
year should be raised or lowered, how to deal with refugees and asylum-seekers, whether preference should be given to
immigrants who possess certain skills these are the questions around which public discussion of immigration in this country
usually revolves. Almost never raised, at least not openly, is a subject that is ultimately more important than any of the others:
What is the best way to turn immigrants into Americans?
The answer is assimilation or, as it used to be called in the United States 80 or 90 years ago, "Americanization."
Assimilation is the key to preserving national unity and fostering common civic values in a nation that comprises hundreds of
ethnic backgrounds and millions of foreign-born residents. It is the most effective mechanism for making real the motto E
Pluribus Unum out of many, one. The world over, ethnic difference plays out as ethnic hatred and violence. Yet the
people of the United States, the most ethnically diverse nation on earth, have been able to live together in relative harmony and
tolerance. How? Through assimilation.
For generations, immigrants knew from the day they arrived that they were expected to become "good Americans." That
meant learning English as quickly as possible and accepting it as the national tongue. It meant getting a job and being a
productive member of society. It meant celebrating American democracy and sharing in American pride. It meant becoming a
US citizen, and holding that citizenship in high esteem.
None of this implied that immigrants or their children had to erase every trace of their ancestral culture. Quite the contrary
as the world's great international melting pot, America has been unusually willing to accommodate foreign customs, dishes,
holidays, languages. "Assimilation does not require immigrants to surrender their ethnic heritage," Peter Salins wrote in
Assimilation, American Style (1997), which argued convincingly that assimilation is critical to America's cohesion and
vitality. "It is about people of different racial, religious, linguistic, or cultural backgrounds believing they are irrevocably part of
the same national family."
But in recent decades, the assimilationist ethic has been badly undermined. The rise of corrosive "multiculturalism," the
denigration of American history and values, the growth of the welfare state, the affirmative-action mindset that assigns
preferences on the basis of race and ethnicity all of these have weakened the assimilationist creed. And they have done so
just as the influx of immigrants has surged to levels not seen since early in the 20th century.
With the decline of assimilation has come an increase in ethnic militancy and a growing hostility to immigrants. Both were
on display in the wake of President Bush's address: Hispanic activists condemned him for doing too little and anti-immigration
groups blasted him for doing too much. As the immigration debate heats up, so will the acrimony and distrust that the decline
of assimilation has engendered. That, more than any other, is the immigration issue we should be focused on.
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