By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
When discussing lofty concepts such as "rule of law," it helps to use real-world examples. So as Alfonso Aguilar spoke to a class of Vietnamese immigrants prepping for the U.S. citizenship test yesterday, he noted that in his parents' homelands -- Costa Rica and Italy -- people view stop signs as "recommendations," not mandates.
"Just like us in Vietnam," said Lam Phan, 59, a waiter, drawing chuckles from his classmates at the Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring.
The mood was light. But to Aguilar, the classroom was no less than a front in an "assimilation movement for the 21st century." As chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, Aguilar has spearheaded a new federal initiative to get immigrants to embrace English and American political values at a time of surging immigration -- a trend that he warned could lead to a "country of enclaves."
"This swelling is going to continue," Aguilar said in an interview before the class. "This is just to take preemptive action to make sure the process of integration continues."
The government has launched a Web site that offers information to immigrants on benefits, English classes and volunteer work. It has provided training for civics teachers and distributed thousands of citizenship "tool kits," with flash cards and booklets, to libraries, community centers and faith-based groups.
The idea, Aguilar said, is not to ask immigrants to shed their cultures but to help them adopt American political values.
"We want to encourage people to celebrate their roots but at the same time to develop roots to their communities," he said.
Immigrants are applying for citizenship, which experts call one benchmark of integration, at record levels. Almost 1.4 million people applied in fiscal 2007, double the figure for the previous year. Officials attribute the surge to an application fee increase, coming elections, citizenship drives and debate over immigration.
But some experts say the immigration debate has snuffed political will to fund an aggressive integration effort. Aguilar's office, created in 2004 within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has a budget of $4.3 million and a staff that recently expanded from seven to 15. An immigration bill that failed in the Senate last year would have allocated $100 million to the office, Aguilar said.
Aguilar said more resources would help, but he dismissed the idea of a "massive entitlement" program. He said the government would do better to use its "bully pulpit" to encourage "creative partnerships" such as one in Las Vegas, where hoteliers cooperate with a culinary union to teach English to immigrant employees.
Yesterday, Aguilar showed a video about the foundations of American democracy and then went to the front of the room to lead the class.
The students were mostly seniors whose English was still rocky, so an instructor interpreted Aguilar's words. A handful were U.S. citizens who said they stuck with the class to learn more English.
The class greeted Aguilar's first questions with silence. Slowly, they warmed up. When Aguilar asked why American politicians are accountable to the public, a woman in a pink cardigan murmured, "We elect them, that's why."
Her name was Loc Nguyen, and she had recently become a citizen.
"You can tell she's a citizen. She could run for office," Aguilar said. Nguyen, 60, giggled.
When it came to selling American civic values, it was an easy crowd. All had fled communist Vietnam. Some had been political prisoners; others were the widows of such prisoners.
"I'm seeking my freedom," Gaithersburg resident Mai Tih Mang, 77, said in Vietnamese.
"I came here also seeking my freedom," said Khiem Nguyen, 66, of Silver Spring. He was in the Navy in pre-communist Vietnam, became a farmer after the fall of Saigon and has been a dishwasher, grass cutter and mattress company employee since arriving in the United States 15 years ago. He is scheduled to take his citizenship test tomorrow.
"We're not allowed to do what we want to do in Vietnam, though we are Vietnamese citizens," said Loc Nguyen of Silver Spring. "It's very different here. . . . I am allowed to say whatever I want to say. Those are the key things."