Assimilation Nation
June 17, 2005

Charles Krauthammer

One of the reasons for the success we've enjoyed in Afghanistan is that our viceroy pardon me, ambassador there, who
saw the country  through the founding of a democratic government, was not just a  serious thinker and a skilled diplomat, but also spoke the language  and understood the culture. Why? Because Zalmay Khalilzad is an  Afghan-born Afghan-American.

 It is not every country that can send to obscure faraway places envoys who are themselves children of that culture. Indeed, Americans are the only people that can do that for practically every country.

Being mankind's first-ever universal nation, to use Ben Wattenberg's  felicitous phrase for our highly integrated polyglot country, carries  enormous advantage. In the shrunken global world of the information  age, we have significant populations of every ethnicity capable of  making instant and deep connections economic as well as diplomatic with just about every foreign trouble spot, hothouse and economic  dynamo on the planet.

It is true that other countries, particularly in Europe, have in the last several decades opened themselves up to immigration. But the real  problem is not immigration but assimilation. Anyone can do immigration. But if you don't assimilate the immigrants France, for example, has vast isolated exurban immigrant slums with populations  totally alienated from the polity and the general culture then immigration becomes not an asset but a liability.

America's genius has always been assimilation, taking immigrants and turning them into Americans. Yet our current debates on immigration focus on only one side of the issue the massive waves of illegal immigrants that we seem unable to stop.

The various plans, all well-intentioned, have an air of hopelessness about them. Amnesty of some sort seems reasonable because there is no  way we're going to expel 10 million-plus illegal immigrants, and we  might as well make their lives more normal.

But that will not stop further illegal immigration. In fact, it will encourage it because every amnesty and we have them periodically  tells potential illegals still in Mexico and elsewhere that if they persist long enough, they will get in, and if they stay here long enough, they can cut to the head of the line.

In the end, increased law enforcement, guest-worker programs and other incentives that encourage some of the illegals to go back home can only go so far. Which is why we should be devoting far more attention to the other half of the problem not just how many come in  but what happens to them once they're here.

The anti-immigrant types argue that there is something unique about our mostly Latin immigration that makes it unassimilable. First, that  there's simply too much of it to be digested. But in fact, the percentage of foreign-born people living in America today is significantly below what it was in 1890 and 1910 and those were  spectacularly successful immigrations. And second, there is nothing about the Catholic-Hispanic culture that makes it any more difficult  to assimilate than the Czechs and Hungarians, Chinese and Koreans, who came decades ago.

The key to assimilation of course, is language. The real threat to the United States is not immigration per se, but bilingualism and, ultimately, biculturalism. Having grown up in Canada, where a language  divide is a source of friction and fracture, I can only wonder at  those who want to duplicate that plague in the United States.

The good news, and the reason I am less panicked about illegal immigration than most, is that the vogue for bilingual education is  now waning. It has been abolished by referendum in California,  Arizona and even Massachusetts.

As the results in California have shown, it was a disaster for Hispanic children. It delays assimilation by perhaps a full generation. Those in "English immersion" have more than twice the rate of English proficiency of those in the old "bilingual" system.

By all means we should try to control immigration. Nonetheless,  given  our geography, our tolerant culture and the magnetic attraction of our economy, illegals will always be with us. Our first task, therefore,  should be abolishing bilingual education everywhere, and requiring  that our citizenship tests have strict standards for English language  and American civics.

The cure for excessive immigration is successful assimilation. The way to prevent European-like immigration catastrophes is to turn every  immigrant and most surely his children into an American. Who might one day grow up to be our next Zalmay Khalilzad.