"Americanization" in the Final Report of the Commission on Immigration Reform
October 7, 1997
Moderator: Demetrios Papademetriou, Senior Associate, International MigrationPolicy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Panelists: Susan Martin, Executive Director of the Commission on Immigration Reform; Cecilia Muñoz, Vice-President for Research and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza; T. Alexander Aleinikoff, Resident Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
Demetrios Papademetriou welcomed the guests to the Carnegie Endowment and commented that countries can succeed only if their immigrants succeed. Thus, every effort must be made to welcome immigrants and integrate them into society. In its latest report to Congress, the Commission on Immigration Reform chose to use the term "Americanization" to describe the process of integration. The three panelists discussed this issue from their perspectives.
Susan Martin acknowledged the negative baggage "Americanization" carries in view of historical U.S. immigration policies which tended to strip immigrants of their identity. Nevertheless, the Commission felt that Americanization expresses a shared commitment to American civic values of democracy, liberty, and equal opportunity. Moreover, Americanization--which does not imply assimilation or a static ideal but rather civic unity in addition to tolerance and respect for diversity--is a two-way street. Immigrants will benefit from learning American civic culture while Americans will benefit from immigrants' unique perspectives. Ms. Martin noted that the Commission identified three areas where local, state, and federal governments can do more to help immigrants: orientation, education, and naturalization. For example, orientation materials should be provided to immigrants, and state governments should establish information clearinghouses. Regarding education, Ms. Martin stressed the significance of learning English and the lack of a widely recognized, successful method for helping people to do so. English language programs, whether bilingual or immersion-based, can succeed as long as trained teachers work together with the community, evaluate students regularly, and emphasize parental involvement. English classes for adults must also be a priority. In the view of the Commission, the naturalization process must be revised. The process should be faster and less complicated, and the citizenship exam should be standardized and revised to place more emphasis on civic values rather than historical facts. The archaic language of the oath should be changed to reflect clearer and more understandable English.
Cecilia Muñoz appreciated the care the Commission took in explaining the term "Americanization" because this term has been associated historically with unconscionable activities such as punishing children for speaking their native language. Despite the Commission's excellent job of explaining Americanization, it is likely that this term will be used as an excuse by various groups to further coercive or exclusive policies. Regarding the Commission's emphasis on orientation, education, and naturalization, Ms. Muñoz stressed that Latino civil rights groups long have supported such an emphasis. However, she cautioned that some groups will use the Commission's findings to argue that immigration is threatening the social fabric and causing disunity. These arguments should be recognized as lies. Immigrants recognize the importance of learning English. The unmet demand for English instruction is huge, and there is much room for state and local governments to invest in this area as well as in Americanization in the context of the Commission's report
T. Alexander Aleinikoff said that Americanization functions on three different levels: political or constitutional, cultural, and economic. Although the Commission's report defines Americanization on the first level and operationalizes it on the third level, the Commission avoids the focus of current debate: the cultural level. Mr. Aleinikoff asserted that values such as liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity are political values most immigrants already hold. The idea that immigrants should be integrated economically is also devoid of much controversy. Yet, the ongoing debate in the United States is a cultural one, dealing with issues such as affirmative action and multiculturalism. This debate is not ocurring between immigrants and the native-born; rather, it is occurring across the mainstream of American opinion. There is no braod consensus to support a particular concept of what "Americanization" might mean. Mr. Aleinikoff also voiced concern about the choice of the term "Americanization." Simply by using it, the Commission implicitly says that disunity is a problem caused by immigrants which will be solved once they are Americanized.
In response to Mr. Aleinikoff's comments, Ms. Martin remarked that the Commission was attempting to eliminate the fear and rancor caused by the debate over the cultural level by reinforcing the political and economic levels.
To contact the panelists:
U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
2430 E Street, NW, South Building
Washington, DC 20037
Click here to access the home page of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
Vice-President for Research and Legislation
National Council of La Raza
1111 19th Street, NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 785-1670
FAX: (202) 776-1792.
Click here to access the home page of the National Council of La Raza
T. Alexander Aleinikoff
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 483-7600
More about T. Alexander Aleinikoff
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