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Stirring the Pot, Focusing on the Melting

Divisions persist in the ongoing immigration debate, but lawmakers are united in pushing for a traditional American aim -- assimilation.

May 21, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If the Senate debate over immigration has achieved little else, it has turned up the heat under the American melting pot.

The chamber seems poised to pass by the end of this week a bill that would toughen border security, establish a guest worker program and provide citizenship opportunities to most illegal immigrants. Because of disagreements with the House, whether such legislation ultimately emerges from Congress remains highly uncertain.

But both in their rhetoric and their votes, senators have sent a clear message that they are determined to reinforce what some view as the nation's traditional bargain with immigrants: Newcomers are welcome, but they must assimilate.

"In many ways the most important issue in the entire immigration debate -- more than border security, more than guest workers -- is how many new people can we allow to come into our country and still make sure they become Americans?" Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. "A lot of the uneasiness and emotion over this immigration debate is from Americans who are afraid we are going to change the character of our country."

Throughout much of U.S. history, citizens have looked at incoming waves of immigrants and wondered whether they would or could assimilate -- learn English, profess allegiance to their new country and adopt its values over those of their homeland.

Of late, the Senate has become a forum for a replay of this discussion. It was heard most clearly last week during arguments over whether to designate English as the country's "national language."

"We're having a great debate in this country, long overdue -- what does it mean to be an American, and what unites us and what divides us," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on the chamber's floor. "As we debate how to assimilate [illegal immigrants], we need to make it clear that it is the policy of our government ... to enhance our common language, English."

Two amendments asserting the primacy of the English language in the United States passed the Senate on Thursday. One declares that English is the "national" language, the other that it is the country's "common and unifying language."

Though senators are continuing to parse the differences between those phrases, the overall message to immigrants is the same:

"We are trying to make an assimilation statement," said Graham, who voted for both.

The pro-assimilation refrain was heard in the background of other debates as well. For instance, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to lower the ceiling on the number of potential guest workers permitted in the nation from 325,000 to 200,000.

"Underlying the vote on the Bingaman amendment was the fear that we just couldn't absorb that many new guest workers," Alexander said. "It's not that we didn't need them or couldn't put them to work. It's that we'd be creating enclaves of people who have allegiance to another country."

One reason the assimilation issue is coming to the fore is the recognition that in raw numbers, Latino immigrants -- legal and illegal -- constitute the largest wave of immigration in American history, according to government figures. As a percentage of the population, however, there are fewer foreign-born residents in the country than in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- about 12% now compared with about 15% then.

"What's happened with [Latino immigration] is that the pace has been so rapid and the numbers are so large that there has not been time yet for accommodation and acculturation," said F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "When you get such a huge influx, it tends to upset the equilibrium a little bit." But if the influx diminishes, the same processes will probably take place, Garcia said.

Scholars such as Garcia argue that the term "assimilation" is a misnomer, suggesting that immigrants lose their cultural identity when they become Americans. Instead, they say that Americanized immigrants tend to hold on to certain traditions from their homeland, such as religion and cuisine, even while learning English and adapting to the cultural mainstream.

In response, American culture tends to adopt bits of immigrant culture as well, notably foods as well as celebrations, such as Cinco de Mayo.

"Among many ethnic and racial groups, 'assimilation' can be a bad word because it has the connotation of losing all of one's native culture, selling out and being ashamed of your native culture," Garcia said. "It's clear that total assimilation is not what we have had in America."

Whatever you call it, some form of assimilation or incorporation still takes place, these experts argue, at least as fast as it did for previous generations of immigrants.

Louis DeSipio, a political science professor who studies Latino society and politics at UC Irvine, said he believed that because of the mass media and rapid technological innovations, this wave of immigrants was assimilating faster than previous ones.

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