Monday, May 24, 2010

Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Integration

After being distracted by state-level shenanigans these past weeks, I finally got around to reading the actual text of the Democratic proposal on immigration reform. Like it or hate it, it really is the quintessential American solution to a problem -- throw some technology at it. The proposal is also has a very long and stilted title that creates the pithy acronym REPAIR. It took me about 8 years to figure out the PATRIOT Act was actually an acronym, too, so I guess that's the way Congress is just going to roll now.

"Immigration reform" is also a misnomer. The REPAIR proposal is really is all about "illegal immigration reform," except for the part that fast-tracks the immigration of foreign math and science nerds. That's not exactly news, but I read the summary curious if I could find any mention of what in the historical period I study would be called "Americanization," but it today referred to more pleasantly as "immigrant integration," or the effort to provide educational assistance and language instruction to immigrants. There it was, tacked on to the end of a sentence in the last paragraph of the last page of the summary.

The Homeland Security Act created an Office of Citizenship in the US Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the new Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Its task is "to promote instruction and training on citizenship rights and responsibilities and to provide federal leadership, tools, and resources to proactively foster immigrant integration," according to its website. President Obama's budget, as the Center for American Progress pointed out, provided $10 million for immigrant integration programs to the Office of Citizenship. Most of this money it dispensed in the form of $100,000 grants to communities and non-profits. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Mike Honda had introduced a bill providing more robust support for immigrant education through the Department of Education and other grant programs, but the bill failed to clear the 110th Congress.

The system in place to provide immigrants with the education they need to transition into life in the United States is essentially identical to the same one that existed in the 1910s and 20s. One of USCIS's grants even went to the YMCA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a group that literally did the same work 90 years ago. A patchwork of uncoordinated, poorly funded, and volunteer-staffed initiatives is what immigrants have to rely on, short of the municipal ESL classes in night school that perpetually cannot meet demand. Even the educational materials available to immigrant integration programs on the USCIS website have been produced by other volunteer groups -- mirroring similar guides written in the early 20th century by the likes of the American Bar Association and the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Since naturalization exams haven't changed much since the end of the Progressive Era either, USCIS focuses on the areas immigrants must master to pass their examinations -- US History, Civics, and English.

Americanization in the early 20th century focused on breaking immigrants of their Old World ways to ensure they became good democratic citizens. In an era dominated by pseudoscientific views on race, immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations were viewed as needing Americanization to overcome innate racial inferiority (Immigrants from any farther weren't even eligible for naturalization). Democracy, the argument, was an Anglo-Saxon invention, and immigrants from non-Anglo nations had to be caught up to speed rapidly so as to avoid an underclass of low skill, insular, corrupt, and potentially revolutionary ghetto dwellers. Then, as now, national security concerns seeped into immigration politics -- with the outbreak of World War I Americanization efforts were redoubled to ensure the loyalty of foreign-born populations to the US government.

It was an insurmountable task for Americanizers, made all the more insurmountable by the fact that many preferred to focus on acculturating immigrant women to the bland American palate and the standards of modern child-rearing rather than language skills or who to harass to get the trash picked up. Assimilation was a one-way street socially and culturally, made all the more so by the demands of wartime. After the war, a bill to create a robust Americanization office within the Bureau of Education failed. Instead, Congress gave up altogether on assimilation and passed restrictive immigration laws.

Elements of this pattern seem to be repeating themselves as the legislative momentum to "crack down" on undocumented immigrants builds on the state level. Obviously, a return to the culturally chauvinistic (if not outright racist) approach of Americanization in the early 20th century is worth avoiding. But a robustly-funded, nationally-coordinated, and professionally-run immigrant integration system should be more than a throw-away clause at the end of a legislative proposal. Perhaps, too, we need to reconsider the utility of having immigrants memorize minutiae about the US Constitution and History to prove they are "American" (it's disturbing to ponder how many Tea Party activists would pass the naturalization test). Learning English, basic legal rights, and some economic literacy will do immeasurable good to make immigrant communities less vulnerable to exploitation and economic hardship. From a political perspective, massively funding immigrant integration also attacks head-on the knee-jerk cultural and social resentment immigration opponents feel toward newcomers, which they vent whenever they have to press #1 for English or see bus ads in Spanish.

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