From Immigrant To Citizen

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the integration of immigrants in this nation of immigrants is just how much it is being done by the immigrants themselves, with a minimum of effort by government or society at large. Despite widespread hand-wringing that today's immigrants are not learning English or becoming “like us” as they used to, the traditional indicators -- English-language acquisition, workforce participation, homeownership, military service, civic participation, and intermarriage -- make it clear that immigrants continue to do what they have always done: become Americans relatively quickly. We're getting an enormous return on a tiny investment.

This pattern contrasts radically with the immigration wave of a century ago, when government and private philanthropy -- through civics education, English-language outreach, and what was termed “Americanization” -- smoothed the path to citizenship and full participation in U.S. society. Ironically, those who worry most about assimilating the current wave of immigrants are doing the least to foster their integration.

The biggest worry focuses on English-language acquisition. Despite the common perception that our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents adopted the language without much trouble and without any help, most groups followed a three-generation pattern, in which the immigrant adults learned enough English to get by, their children were bilingual with English as the dominant language, and their grandchildren, largely, spoke English only. As for today's immigrants, the vast majority of whom are Latino and Asian, there appears to be no cause for worry. According to the 2000 census, of the people who report speaking Spanish at home, 72 percent also report speaking English “well” or “very well.” This proportion for speakers of Asian languages is more than 77 percent. The research on the second and third generations consistently shows adherence to the three-generation pattern. For example, a recent report on language assimilation by the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research in Albany, New York, found that the second generation is largely bilingual; 92 percent of the Hispanics speak English “well,” as do 96 percent of the Asians, though most also speak another language at home. The third generation generally speaks English only.

Despite this success, the integration of immigrants would benefit enormously from an infusion of resources. Among the unmet needs of immigrants are more English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. According to the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, almost half of the 1.2 million adults in federally funded adult education programs are there to learn English. Waiting lists for class slots are often so long that some immigrants wait months or years before getting a space. Studies by the National Center for Education Statistics suggest a pool of 3 million or more adults who are interested in ESL classes but not enrolled for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the classes are oversubscribed.

Immigrant communities and their co-ethnics are attempting to fill the ESL class gap; out of more than 300 affiliates of the National Council of La Raza, more than half provide ESL classes to adults, most without public funding of any kind. This pattern is repeated across ethnic groups, church organizations, and other nonprofits, which largely attempt to meet the need with donated classroom space, volunteer teachers, and whatever curricula they can find on the Internet. Essentially, a large part of the national effort to provide English-language instruction for immigrant adults is being carried out with the educational equivalent of duct tape and string.

But English alone will not be enough to help today's immigrants integrate into American society. While America of the 19th century needed physically able immigrants, economic advancement today now requires an education. The ability of adult-education programs to go beyond basic English skills for immigrant adults, and a successful public-education system for their children, is essential for the full economic integration of today's immigrants. Similarly, we all have a stake in the extent to which immigrants -- who are overrepresented among those who don't have bank accounts -- develop financial literacy and the wherewithal to amass savings for their children's education or their own retirement. Recently arrived immigrants also are often working in jobs that don't provide health insurance, and are categorically ineligible for government-funded programs that can provide vital preventive care, health education, and other services important to the broader public health. Even the recent crises in the Gulf Coast have highlighted the failure of federal and local governments to communicate about the need to evacuate in languages that all residents could understand; neither the public nor most private relief efforts managed to communicate with all of those affected. You get the idea.

Finally, we need to find a way to help eligible immigrants to naturalize. The United States does nothing at all to encourage or assist immigrants in taking this final step. There is no notification when an immigrant or refugee becomes eligible to naturalize, and the process is a confusing, lengthy, and expensive quagmire. The waiting period for a naturalization petition to be adjudicated is rarely less than six months, and in many parts of the country often exceeds one or even two years. At $320, not including fingerprinting and other costs, the fee is very high compared with any other government processes, like obtaining passports or driver's licenses, both of which involve much more expensive, security-conscious documents. The new agency administering the process, the bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security, has yet to improve upon the reputation of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service for lost files, delays, and other bureaucratic red tape. We'd be well served by changing the system, particularly because those who naturalize have a higher propensity to participate in the political process. In fact, Americans by choice are more likely to vote than Americans by birth.

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Unfortunately, there is plenty of talk today about how to keep immigrants out, but hardly any of what to do for those who come in. The absence of anything resembling a public strategy to maximize the speed and depth of their integration is extraordinary. Think about the major policy debates of the last decade, from health care to the No Child Left Behind education reforms and the Social Security debate, all arguably opportunities to incorporate elements of a broader immigrant-integration strategy in which the discussion simply never happened.

In conservative circles, the discussion is largely focused on cultural issues and fears that assimilation is not taking place. Many dedicate their firepower to the subject of bilingual education, which is intended to support immigrant students in their efforts to move forward in subjects like math and science while they learn English; detractors like to mischaracterize it as a nationalistic effort by organizations like ours to preserve Spanish at all costs. As contentious as this debate is, it is focused on a tiny program. In the meantime, fully two-thirds of immigrant students who need to learn English have no access to programs of any kind to help them do so. Surely we can do better for these students than an endless ideological debate about eliminating bilingual programs.

But at least conservatives are talking about something. The progressive movement, which once did so much to facilitate the process by which immigrants become Americans, is largely absent from the discussion. Except for ethnic organizations that directly work with immigrant constituencies, progressives tend to say the right things about immigrants and their co-ethnics without really making them a presence in their policy agendas, philanthropic strategies, or institutions.

This is in stark contrast to the progressive movement of 100 years ago, when multiple sectors of American society made extraordinary investments in the integration process, undertaking major reforms on a scale that is almost unimaginable today. These investments, which were aimed directly at immigrant integration, created at least two major American institutions: the public schools and the adult-education system. Similarly, philanthropy of the late-19th and early-20th centuries focused substantial investment in the assimilation of new immigrants, including the expansive settlement-house movement and the creation of the modern public-library system by industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Other innovations were a little more indirect: By telling the story of immigrant living conditions in How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis inspired significant tenement reforms; 16 years later, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a fictional but authentic accounting of the immigrant experience in the meatpacking industry that horrified the nation and led to the enactment of major labor laws. Indeed, the history of the labor movement in the United States is deeply intertwined with our immigrant history, as is the development of major political machines in major cities. Say what you will about Tammany Hall, it encouraged citizenship and voting by giving immigrants a direct stake in the electoral process.

By contrast, immigrants and the impact of immigration rarely appear in much of the current progressive debate on social issues. The big exception to this may be some parts of the labor movement. It is no accident that, for the most part, the only unions that are growing are the ones organizing in industries populated by immigrant workers. These unions, especially the Service Employees International Union and the newly merged UNITE HERE (representing the hotel, restaurant, and garment industries), led an effort that reversed the AFL-CIO's traditionally restrictionist posture and allied it with the immigrant-rights movement. But the labor movement as a whole is still deeply ambivalent about the presence of immigrants in the workforce and the country, which may contribute to the broader progressive movement's silence on immigrant issues, including integration.

Similarly, few if any of the major voices on education policy have anything to say about the students who are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants still learning English (English Language Learners, or ELLs). Despite the fact that ELLs now constitute more than 10 percent of students in our schools, and more than twice that proportion in key urban areas, the public-education system is largely unresponsive, and the gap in educational outcomes between these students and their peers is not narrowing.

And these gaps are stubborn. Many a suburban school continues to be labeled “in need of improvement” because of the struggles of its ELL students (along with special-needs students). This has led to a vigorous debate about the fairness of the tests for students whose native language is not English. In some cases the discussion focuses on testing students in a language they understand in order to measure what they know (it's hard to know their capacity in math if they can't get past the instructions on the test). This discussion is inevitably controversial because it bumps up against the familiar suspicion that those seeking these assessments are really anti-English ideologues. The alternative, which is raised distressingly often, is to exempt ELL students from assessments altogether, which relieves the immediate pressure on schools and teachers but also dismantles the entire accountability structure for educating this group of students. For schools under enormous pressure from all sides, it's difficult to imagine that such a scenario would result in better outcomes for immigrant youth.

Efforts to expand the number and quality of programs to teach English language and literacy to adults are also limited to a few lonely voices in the wilderness. The notable exceptions are innovative state-level ESL and naturalization initiatives in Illinois and New York, the product of savvy and effective advocacy campaigns by immigrant coalitions. These initiatives are notable in that they are so rare. Federal resources for adult ESL education expanded briefly during the Clinton administration, but have either remained stagnant or declined ever since.

Aside from persistent advocacy from within the immigrant-rights movement itself, improvements in the naturalization process are also absent from the progressive agenda, though it must be said that when then–Vice President Al Gore proposed to facilitate the naturalization of immigrants, he was pilloried for supposedly politicizing the process. (By drafting an internal memorandum suggesting ways to streamline a badly backlogged naturalization process, the vice president became the subject of congressional inquiry and a media firestorm focused on the notion that he was “cheapening” the process in order to crank out voters who would likely cast ballots for him in 2000.) But when Republicans have taken steps to make naturalization more difficult by increasing fees, revamping the naturalization exam, and other measures, the left has been silent. The generous explanation for this silence is the fear of the kind of political reprisals faced by Gore; the more likely explanation is indifference.

Indeed, Republicans are outsmarting progressives, particularly when it comes to reaching the intrepid immigrants who have survived the naturalization process, airing campaign ads in Spanish as well as English and courting votes. This is a new phenomenon, road tested in the most recent presidential election, and right now it is more style than substance. Nonetheless, the portion of the Republican Party that is not engaged in immigrant-bashing is poised to make a serious investment in moving immigrant voters into its ranks.

The progressive movement should take note. This political transformation is not inevitable, but it is indeed possible, and it is one area of integration in which a serious investment is being made. Progressives, however, have been largely missing in action on this front, assuming that Latino and Asian immigrants and their co-ethnics are part of the “base.” There are plenty of other good reasons to invest in immigrant integration; perhaps this is the one that will shake the left out of its complacency.

Janet Murguia is the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil-rights and advocacy organization. Cecilia Muñoz, the vice president of the council's Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation, contributed to this article.