Federal program will give immigrants a leg up, new roots
WASHINGTON - Hoping to better integrate immigrants into U.S. society, the federal government will partner with community-based organizations to connect newcomers with host families, teach them civics and provide basic information such as how to get a driver's license or join the PTA.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to use a modest government investment to steer legal immigrants to English classes and other services offered by religious organizations, immigrant advocacy groups and others. The effort will be launched on an experimental basis within six months.
The program will also aim to impart civics lessons, with booklets and seminars on the Constitution, citizenship and other topics, said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the newly created Office of Citizenship.
"What we have to make sure, in order to move forward as a nation, is that we emphasize the shared values that we all have," Aguilar said. "It's about civic integration."
And he added, "We have to realize that right now the process is not integrating them."
Experts say the program, which has a $1.5 million budget this year, represents a shift in U.S. immigration policy - which historically has been generous in admissions but has done little after people arrive.
"It's safe to say that it's pitiful that we in this country don't have an organized program to welcome immigrants," said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, one of the groups approached by Aguilar's office.
Federal officials have reached out in recent weeks to other immigrant aid providers, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and advocacy groups for Hispanic, Southeast Asian and Filipino communities. And Aguilar said he hopes to woo private-sector companies.
"I think it's a positive thing that they are doing. And we, of course, hope that eventually it's accompanied by some funding so that more capacity can be created to help people get legal status and help them become citizens," Kerwin said.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration rates, welcomed the federal effort.
"It's something long overdue," he said. "Our immigration policy has been tinged by a kind of libertarianism where we let in huge numbers of people, but let them sink or swim once they get here. And in a modern society, especially, that's just not a recipe for success."
The integration effort comes at a time when the United States is taking in more immigrants than ever. Among the numbers:
Slightly more than 1 million people were granted legal permanent residence in 2002.
The foreign-born population in the United States reached 34 million last year - with roughly 24 million immigrants entering in the 1980s or later.
Immigrants account for one out of every nine U.S. residents, one out of every seven U.S. workers, one out of every five children in the country.
"We have a large population which hasn't been around for a long time, therefore hasn't had the opportunity to integrate in the same way as the prior generations have. So therefore, it's not business as usual, this present stream of immigrants, in terms of the challenge that it presents to the country," said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. The institute is involved in a series of public-private partnerships to foster immigrant integration.
The immigrants are "basically crucial to every institution in the country," Kerwin said. "So what you're trying to do is trying to strengthen them, trying to make them viable, strong members of the country."
Said Aguilar: "You either integrate them or you marginalize them."
The Urban Institute, in a recent study, found that nearly 9 million legal immigrants eligible to apply for citizenship haven't done so, for reasons including limited English skills and strong ties to their homelands.
The Office of Citizenship's aim in starting an integration pilot program isn't about naturalization, Aguilar said. "Our goal is really not to increase the number of citizens," he said.
The Clinton administration, which undertook a much criticized effort to more rapidly naturalize immigrants, was accused of cutting corners and playing politics to curry favor with immigrant constituencies.
Aguilar noted that his office, included in the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, was endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats. "This is not a political thing," he said. "Obviously we are not here to promote a political party or party allegiance."
The integration initiative will start within six months in five cities with large immigrant populations. Though the locations haven't been selected yet, Aguilar said one pilot will be in the Washington, D.C., area. Other likely candidates include New York, Los Angeles and Miami, he said.
Aguilar said he hopes to launch a public service ad campaign in Spanish-language media and elsewhere touting the integration effort and patriotism. He also hopes to involve USA Freedom Corps volunteers.
Aware of the budget limitations, he said part of the government's role is "providing the bully pulpit" to rally immigrants to existing services and foster new integration efforts in the public and private sectors.
The U.S. effort in some ways seeks to emulate the longstanding integration programs in Canada and Australia - which along with Israel and the United States are the world's top immigrant-receiving countries.
Canada, which spends $173 million at the federal level annually on integration initiatives, even offers services before the immigrants arrive. The Canadian government also pairs immigrants with host families and volunteer organizations to ease the newcomers' transition. And it pays for free language training in English or French for all eligible adult immigrants.
Though the U.S. government spent nearly $1.1 billion in 1999 on English and other education programs for immigrants who are not refugees, organizations that provide such services say the demand outpaces the availability of classes.
"I would say the spending in this regard is small compared to the need," said Kevin Appleby, director of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies described the federal government's move as a necessary one.
"When you have 33 million-plus immigrants, it becomes necessary to go the extra mile to incorporate these people into your society," he said. "Because if you don't, you're going to end up with separatism, something we already may have too much of today."