At Odds Over Immigrant Assimilation

Teacher Alex Moreno helps immigrants Jose Gomez and Jose Alcides Orellana at a citizenship class in Silver Spring.
Teacher Alex Moreno helps immigrants Jose Gomez and Jose Alcides Orellana at a citizenship class in Silver Spring. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hernan Ruiz, a concrete finisher with a gray streak in his dark hair, shot up his hand during a recent citizenship test prep class at a sunny Silver Spring community center. Called on to answer a question about who elects the U.S. president, the El Salvador native carefully pronounced "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 one.

But he knows that not everyone sees people such as him -- an immigrant who prefers to speak his mother tongue -- that way. To this, he responds that the U.S. 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," Ruiz, 48, said. "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 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 that. The Task Force on New Americans, created by executive order last year, recently presented initiatives that supporters say will help immigrants "become fully American."

Among the government initiatives is a Web site to direct immigrants to information on benefits, English classes and volunteer work. Another site offers resources for English and citizenship-test 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 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security, said at a news 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 integrated.

The modern immigrant wave arrived after laws were relaxed in 1965, so evidence of its generational progress remains incomplete, said Tomas R. Jimenez, assistant sociology professor at the University of California at San Diego. But researchers say the newcomers and their offspring seem to be following the broad historical pattern, although Mexicans are progressing more slowly. English acquisition is occurring at the same or a faster rate, said Rubén G. Rumbaut, a sociology professor 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 California Mexicans prefer to speak English at home.

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

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