Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Assimilation or Multi-culturalism: That is the Question

Maybe we need a combination of the two.

What does it mean to be American? Does it mean everyone talks the same and looks the same and believes the same things? Does it mean forgetting everything that our parents and grandparents had to go through to get to this country? Does it mean forgetting all the customs and foods and stories they were raised with?

Wouldn't that be awfully hard to do? And wouldn't this be a boring place to live?

This country was a huge land with very few inhabitants and then people from all parts of the world left their own homes and troubles and came here with one goal: to make a better life for their families than they could have in their homeland. They were the entrepreneurs, the hard working, stubborn, brave people who came with nothing and made something of themselves. In the process they built a great country for us.

George Washington said in 1783 that our borders were open for the wealthy and educated and oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, who were free to participate in all our rights and privileges – if these newcomers followed American standards of decency and proper conduct. He wanted them to assimilate to their new country's values. And most of them did. Most of these European immigrants considered themselves Americans and never saw their homelands or families again. This was mainly because travel to Europe was difficult, not because the new country insisted on it, although it made assimilation easier to accomplish.

The goal used to be for all immigrants of different backgrounds to "melt" into a new race of people. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, this ideal was challenged when we were encouraged to celebrate diversity and move beyond this melting pot. Assimilation was changed to multi-culturalism.

Multi-culturalism is promoted by many, but it doesn't give the people a common goal, belief or even language anymore. Many of the immigrants here now have no knowledge of the history of this country and no interest in learning it. They have no loyalty to any common idea or belief, and often don't consider themselves Americans. A large number never learn English and never learn their rights or responsibilities and never become a part of this country. What can we do to help them become Americans?

The task of assimilating into a new culture doesn't rest with the people already there, it is the responsibility of the immigrants to take advantage of the opportunities that are offered to them in their new home. They must try to adapt to life in this country. It doesn't mean they should forget their own customs, it doesn't mean they should change entirely, but it does mean they should do their best to learn the language and the rules.

When Americans look back at their history of immigration, they assume that assimilation is a relatively easy process, since their parents and grandparents did it. But it is very hard for immigrants to give up old languages, customs and practices so they can be absorbed into their new society. Most people possess a strong, passionate attachment to their own culture and way of life and in most cases, they are emigrating because of poverty in their own country. If their country offered them a good life for their families, most of them would stay home.

We need the immigrants who are here and will need more all the time. We should find a way to combine the assimilation we used to strive for and the multi-culturalism that so many want now. We have to convince these new people to become Americans without giving up all of the customs from their former homes.

We need more Americans, not just citizens (or non-citizens) living here who never fit in.

Friday, November 25, 2005

How Can We Convince Immigrants to Learn English?

Even though they are able to live here without it.

Everyone in the world knows that English is the language spoken in the U.S. and most immigrants are prepared to learn it. But when they arrive, many of them (especially Spanish speaking) find signs and other information in their own language and quickly realize that they don't have to learn more than a few words of English.

It is completely understandable why they are reluctant to learn it. Learning a new language is hard, if people don't have to do it, they probably won't. But these people also won't ever be fully integrated into our society. In the past, the first thing new immigrants did was learn English. They had to know English to work and drive and shop. When everyone in the country speaks the same language, even with an accent, the country is much more united than ours is now.

Now they can live in their own little communities, watch TV, listen to the radio, read a newspaper, shop, work and even drive without speaking ANY English. They can get government forms in their own language and almost all offices and departments have interpreters available for them.

Many new residents know almost nothing about this country they live in. Without understanding the language, they don’t have much opportunity to learn about the culture. They don’t learn the laws or their rights or responsibilities and very often end up in trouble because of it. They live here the same way they did in their home country and when they are within their little enclaves they are sometimes perpetuating the same problems that they were trying to get away from.

English is what unites us in this country. Diverse people and cultures with one language made this nation. People who know our language are more successful, earn more income, move into better neighborhoods with better schools and make better lives for their families. Their children, in turn, are more successful and the whole country benefits.

We should stop talking so much about multiculturalism and talk again about this country being a “melting pot” where people from all countries move here, learn the language and become Americans. The melting pot doesn’t have to mean Anglo conformity, it can mean a mixture of all the different cultures. The melting pot has always been changing and that mixture would now have more of a Latino texture than before. It was mostly British and Northern European at one time, then Irish was added, then Italian, then Jewish, then Asian, but always a mixture that was American. What else could anyone call that mixture? It was American.

How can we convince the new immigrants to learn English? Maybe more classes and tutors would help. Maybe they would be convinced if they were shown how much better they would do if they knew English. Maybe it would help if they knew there are many more jobs available everyday for bilingual workers.

Will the fact that so many immigrants didn’t understand the warnings to evacuate when Hurrican Katrina was nearing the coast help them to understand that they should know at least some English? They should not expect that the warnings would be in their language.

How can we convince immigrants to learn English? Regardless of the things we do, it won't do much good if they are not convinced it is important. They have to be shown how much safer and successful they will be if they know the language that most of the country speaks. And if they are successful, we will benefit too.

What Would We Do if All the Illegal Immigrants Left?

Could we afford to live here if they all went home?

There are several proposals for immigration reform being discussed now. They say they will solve the problem of so many illegal immigrants coming to and staying in this country. Some are offering amnesty, others guest worker cards, others temporary cards.

Some people are talking about rounding them up and sending them all back to where ever they came from.

How would we do that? First, how would we find all of them? If we were able to find them, who would do the processing and paperwork to organize the deportation? Would we hire planes and buses and buy them tickets to go home? It sounds like it would be impossible and also impossibly expensive to do this for the millions who are here, some for many years.

If the roads were filled with buses and the skies with planes taking all these people out of this country, what would happen then? Who would do the work they were doing here? There would be a huge shortage of workers for farming, construction, landscaping, restaurants and tourism. Last season, growers could not get enough workers to harvest their crops and this year is worse. Prices of everything would rise dramatically and some produce would not be available at all, because it would be rotting in the fields.

These people take jobs that most other residents won’t take. The pay is low, the hours are long, the work is very hard and often dangerous, the benefits are non-existent. They often are housed in bunkhouses or sharing trailers, away from their families, living in conditions few of us would tolerate. Assuming they make about $6.00 an hour, what would the wage have to be raised to for any of us to accept the work and conditions? $12? $20? If growers had to pay two or three or four times the present wage just to harvest, how much would lettuce and apples and tomatoes cost in the stores?

If landscaping companies, contractors and restaurants had to pay top wages to get the work done, how much would we have to pay to buy or repair a house or get the lawn cut or buy a meal? If motel and hotel maids and janitors were paid more, would we be able to afford a room?

If these workers were allowed to work legally, with a guest worker card or temporary worker visa, or whatever the different proposals call them, they would have to be paid at least the minimum wage and would be paying taxes. Paying the minimum wage or the prevailing wage would probably raise prices a little, but not as much as raising wages so the rest of us would do the work. An added bonus might be discovering that some of these workers are highly educated and skilled and are taking these manual labor jobs because they can’t legally get a better job.

If companies can’t find enough workers who are here legally, they should be able to offer these jobs to others willing and able to do them. But these people should have some type of document; they have to be paying taxes, have to be able to work and live safely, have to be able to be located when the immigration department wants to know where they are.

Undocumented workers are exploited by unscrupulous employers. They are exploited precisely because they are undocumented. These employers know they can do almost anything to them and won’t be reported. If these employers were made to follow the laws, it would also help solve the problem.

If people needed these temporary visas to work here, the ones that are crossing the border illegally would probably stop coming. It would be impossible to send all the illegal people back home now, we have to find a better way to deal with this problem.

We beg for immigration reform and complain about illegal immigrants, but are we willing to pay more for almost everything we need and use in our lives if they are deported?

Should We Worry About Immigrant Assimilation and Education?

Yes, they are important to our future!

Many of tomorrow's workers and business owners are the children of today's immigrants. More than 40% of the growth of our labor force in the late 1990s was due to immigrants, and since immigration WILL continue, they are important to our future growth.

A concern is certainly that many of today's Hispanic/Latino immigrants are uneducated and unskilled: this could mean that their children will not fit into our knowledge-based and high-tech economy. Often when parents are uneducated, they have lower expectations and don't encourage their children to stay in high school and go on to college. These parents very often need their children to work in the shops they own or contribute to the household income with outside jobs. Many of their children must drop out of high school to help the family survive financially.

Twenty five percent of the children under the age of six in the U.S. are children of immigrants, the majority in poor families. If these children went to preschool, it would dramatically change their lives, especially if there were also some services available for their parents. If these parents could go to nearby ESL classes and learn some tips on early child rearing, and be shown how important it is for their children to get an education, it would help tremendously in the children's later public school years.

Children who get preschool education are much more likely to do well in school and less likely to drop out or get into trouble. This is true for immigrant children and any other children who are living in poverty.

It would be wonderful if all parents could get some of this training, but poor parents need it most, especially if they don’t speak English at home or if they don’t have much education themselves.

Blue-collar jobs are on the decline in many parts of the U.S. Factories and textile mills are closing and moving to other countries, shocking many people who were born here and have worked in these factories for decades. Money is often spent to re-educate these workers, yet many of them are unable to learn the computers well enough for these high tech jobs because of their age or their own education shortcomings.

Immigrants’ children who have dropped out of school and have no training in these high-tech positions will have the same problem. Immigrants with limited skills will always work at whatever job they can find; this probably means they will always work at low paying jobs and never get out of poverty. If they are forced to raise their own children in poverty, the cycle continues.

Once they are fluent in English and learn U.S. laws, they have a much greater chance of getting better jobs, although the wage gap between them and people born here may still be quite wide.

Undocumented Hispanic teens who are in our public schools may have lower educational aspirations and not try to finish high school, even when their parents do not need their income. They often feel discouraged because they don't think they can get a college education, or if they do get one, that they won't be eligible to work here.

Some states are allowing undocumented students who have attended and graduated from their high schools to attend public state colleges at in-state rates. If these teens have lived in that state for years, have received a good education in those schools and have graduated, why shouldn’t they be allowed to continue their education there without paying the higher non-resident rates?

If they gradute from college, they should be able to apply for citizenship and use their degree to get a high paying job in this country. These workers will contribute to their community, start businesses, buy houses and be wonderful Americans. The money that was spent by the state to educate them to grade 12 will be repaid many times over.

We need skilled and highly trained workers, why would we want these kids to stop their schooling and be forced to work in low paying jobs the rest of their lives? That does not help any of us.

When We Help Immigrants, We Help Ourselves

And some of the benefits are immediate!

Almost all of us who are not immigrants, are descended from immigrants. The United States was built by immigrants and it will always be a country of immigrants. When we think of Chinese, Italians, Germans, English, French, etc. we picture distinct people, cultures, food and languages.

When we think of Americans, we picture a combination of all the other countries. And it is always changing. When people used to picture Americans they saw white people from England, Germany and Scandinavia and the black people descended from slaves. Then Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants came; at that time none of these people were thought of as white. Asian immigrants came next and now the picture we have of Americans is becoming more Spanish speaking and from Latin America.

Throughout our country’s history, there have always been residents who thought the country was full or didn’t need people from certain countries. They seemed to believe, “I’m OK, you’re not”. But the bravest, strongest, most determined, entrepreneurial people from poor countries took a huge chance and moved here to build a better life for themselves. In the process they built a better country for all of us.

If you moved to a new country, what would you do if you knew only a few words of the language and even less of the laws and customs? You would probably first ask your friends, who often wouldn’t know the right answers. Then you might make several attempts to do something and then perhaps give up entirely. Then you would find out the hard way (tickets, fines, evictions, school suspensions) that you did something wrong. New immigrants are trying to adapt to life here and struggle every day to fit in.

When immigrants succeed, we all benefit. Some of the benefits are immediate: helping someone in the checkout line at the grocery store to understand the instructions or make change, helps the line move faster. If we speak slowly and help them learn some English, everything in our daily lives works better. Learning a new language is very difficult, but they won’t be able to assimilate if they don’t learn English. Some people say that these newcomers are stupid or not willing to learn the rules, while they probably are just not able to understand the language or the rules.

If we are friendly and welcoming to new neighbors, they will learn how to fit in and there will be less friction. If there is a neighborhood meeting, take them along. Many of them come from entirely different cultures and have to be shown how to fit into ours.

Tell them about open house and parent-teacher meetings at the local school. Their country’s schools might not have wanted the parents to be involved and they don’t understand how important it is here. Your children’s schools will be better schools if more of the parents are involved and help out. Your children will learn about other countries and cultures from these parents and students, too.

If there is a fire or weather emergency, check on them. Many of them don’t know where to go or who to ask about phone and electric service they have lost. They don’t know there are shelters and help available. Keeping your neighbors safe will make your neighborhood better and maybe they will be helping you next time. A close community of good neighbors has less crime and drugs and other dangerous activities.

In other words, do the same things for these newcomers that you would want them to do for you if you were new residents in their country. This is also called The Golden Rule.

This is our country, we have a right and a responsibility to help new residents learn how to live here. They won’t learn by seeing resentment and hatred on our faces. They will learn by example and friendliness. We will all be happier and we will all benefit when these immigrants become Americans, just like our immigrant ancestors did.