Immigrant assimilation critical, report finds
Stephen Wall, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/28/2008 07:08:26 AM PST

As the United States becomes more diverse, a greater effort must be made to integrate immigrants into American society, according to a new report by a federal task force.
The steady rise in the foreign-born population and shifting demographic patterns make it essential for the country to embark on a renewed "Americanization" movement to preserve social unity, the report states.

President George W. Bush created "The Task Force on New Americans" in 2006. The task force, which included members from 20 federal agencies, delivered the report to Bush earlier this month The 67-page document provides recommendations to strengthen immigrant integration efforts across the United States.

"The task force believes that immigrants do generally assimilate in the United States," said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Office of Citizenship. "But trends show government can do more to help newcomers learn English, learn about America and promote integration across our nation."

The report, "Building an Americanization Movement for the 21st Century," recommends enhanced English language educational services for immigrant adults, including a focus on electronic learning and distance learning.

It also calls on the federal government to work more closely with the private sector and community-based organizations to promote language and civics programs.

The need for increased assimilation efforts has become stronger because of the rapid growth in the immigrant population over the past 40 years, according to the report.

Between 1966 and 2008, the U.S. population grew from 200 million to 300 million. Immigrants and their U.S. born children account for 55 percent of that growth.

By 2025, the proportion of the foreign-born in the United States is expected to exceed the previous century's peak of 14 percent. By 2050, the foreign-born population is projected to reach 19 percent, the report states.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that whites will no longer be the majority by the middle of this century.

While most of America's previous immigration waves were made up of Europeans, more recent arrivals are coming largely from Latin America and Asia.

They are increasingly planting roots in the South, West and other places without long-standing immigrant traditions.

The rapid demographic change and new settlement patterns could be troubling developments unless there are successful efforts to incorporate immigrants into American political and civic life, the report says.

"The risk of marginalized or fragmented enclaves can create social tension in the short term and may ultimately threaten to undermine the vary fabric of values and principles that unite all Americans," according to the report.

Elsa Valdez, a sociology professor at Cal State San Bernardino, doesn't agree that immigrant enclaves pose a threat to the American way of life.

"It's total nonsense," Valdez said. "We have had immigrants coming for over 200 years. America as a country has never become Balkanized and we haven't had a civil war with different groups fighting each other. The only reason you have enclaves or segregated communities is we haven't done a very good job integrating the different immigrant groups economically and socially in terms of jobs, health care and education."

Armando Navarro, an ethnic studies professor at UC Riverside, views the demographic transformation as a positive. President-elect Barack Obama, whose mother was white and father was black, is an impressive example of how far this country has evolved as a culturally and ethnically diverse society, he noted.

"Today, many Americans are multicultural in their lifestyle," Navarro said. "They go to an Italian restaurant one week and a Mexican restaurant the next. One night they're listening to mariachi music and the next night they are embracing hip-hop. This says something for what this country is all about."

But others are concerned that too much illegal immigration is making it harder to integrate people of diverse backgrounds.

"People who come here need to be assimilated into the American mainstream," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "If we are going to successfully bring this huge cohort of immigrants into the mainstream, it has to be a cooperative effort on both sides. One of the things we've seen for a long time is the assimilation process is hindered by continuing high levels of immigration."