A better welcome for our nation's immigrants

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By Jeb Bush and Robert D. Putnam
Saturday, July 3, 2010

On our national birthday, and amid an angry debate about immigration, Americans should reflect on the lessons of our shared immigrant past. We must recall that the challenges facing our nation today were felt as far back as the Founders' time. Immigrant assimilation has always been slow and contentious, with progress measured not in years but in decades. Yet there are steps communities and government should take to form a more cohesive, successful union.

Consider what one leader wrote in 1753: "Few of their children in the country learn English. The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages. . . . Unless the stream of their importation could be turned . . . they will soon so outnumber us that we will not preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious." Thus Ben Franklin referred to German Americans, still the largest ethnic group in America. A century later, Midwestern cities such as Cincinnati and St. Louis were mostly German-speaking. So worried were their native-born neighbors that Iowa outlawed speaking German in public and even in private conversation.

Proponents and opponents of immigration agree on one thing: Learning English is crucial to success and assimilation. Yet learning a language as an adult is hard, so first-generation immigrants often use their native tongue. Historically, English has dominated by the second or third generation in all immigrant groups. Most recent immigrants recognize that they need to learn English, and about 90 percent of the second generation speak English, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Research by sociologists Claude Fischer and Michael Hout published in 2008 suggests that English acquisition among immigrants today is faster than in previous waves.

Residential integration of immigrants is even more gradual. Half a century ago, sociologist Stanley Lieberson showed that most immigrants lived in segregated enclaves, "Little Italy" or "Chinatown," for several generations. This segregation reflected discrimination by natives and the natural desire of "strangers in a strange land" to live among familiar faces with familiar customs. Only with suburbanization, encouraged by government policy in the 1950s and 1960s, did the children and grandchildren of the immigrants of the 1890s and 1900s exit those enclaves. That many of today's immigrants live in ethnic enclaves is thus entirely normal and reflects no ominous aim to separate themselves from the wider American community.

Immigrant intermarriage, then and now, also demonstrates steady progress over generations. In the 1960s, more than half a century after Italian immigration peaked, about 40 percent of second-generation Italians married non-Italians. This pattern characterizes today's immigrants: 39 percent of U.S.-born Latinos marry non-Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center. Intermarriage among second-generation Asian Americans is even more common. Today's immigrants are, on average, assimilating socially even more rapidly than earlier waves.

One important difference, however, that separates immigration then and now: We native-born Americans are doing less than our great-grandparents did to welcome immigrants.

A century ago, religious, civic and business groups and government provided classes in English and citizenship. Historian Thomas P. Vadasz found that in Bethlehem, Pa., a thriving town of about 20,000, roughly two-thirds of whom were immigrants, the biggest employer, Bethlehem Steel, and the local YMCA offered free English instruction to thousands of immigrants in the early 20th century, even paying them to take classes. Today, immigrants face long waiting lists for English classes, even ones they pay for.

Why is this important? A legal immigration system is the not-so-secret edge in a competitive, interconnected world economy. Immigrants enhance our ability to grow and prosper in the dynamic global marketplace. We will need every possible advantage to expand our economy amid its fiscal challenges. Moreover, the aging of our population places a premium on young, productive workers, many of whom must come from immigration.

To improve their integration into our American community, we should:

-- Provide low-cost English classes, in cooperation with local civic and religious groups, where immigrants build personal ties with co-ethnics and native-born Americans. These connections foster assimilation and help newcomers navigate our complex institutions.

-- Invest in public education, including civics education and higher education. During the first half of the 20th century, schools were critical to preparing children of immigrants for success and fostering a shared national identity.

-- Assist communities experiencing rapid increases in immigration, which is traumatic for those arriving here and for receiving communities. Schools and hospitals bear disproportionate costs of immigration, while the economic and fiscal benefits from immigration accrue nationally.

Assimilation does not mean immigrants shed ethnic identities. Our national experience with hyphenated identities shows that good Americans can retain a strong sense of ethnic identity.

We've lived our national motto, "E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of Many, One"), better than any other country. But we ought not to airbrush our ancestors' difficulties in assimilation, nor fail to match our forebears' efforts to help integrate immigrants. Government, churches, libraries, civic organizations and businesses must cooperate to address this challenge, as they did a century ago.

Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. Robert D. Putnam is the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.


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