[COMMUNITY] Immigrants Becoming Americans
- Making for easier assimilation
Through a task force, a booklet and a website, the U.S. government is
helping immigrants learn English and integrate into society.
By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
"Becoming American doesn't mean giving up your culture. Being
American is three things: learning English, learning our system of
government and learning our history."
In her heart, Sonia Galdamez is Salvadoran. She speaks Spanish at
home and cooks Salvadoran food for her family.
But since arriving in Los Angeles nearly two years ago, she has been
sworn in as a U.S. citizen and is studying English at L.A. City
Galdamez said she doesn't have to sacrifice her traditions, roots or
language to become American.
"But in this country, really, they speak English," she said. "If I
want to find a good job, I have to learn it."
Galdamez is a model for the federal government's massive assimilation
campaign, which the Bush administration launched in 2006 and is
continuing to expand. This spring, the government will offer a free
Web-based English class to immigrants on its new site,
Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, said the
goal is to help immigrants integrate into U.S. society, learn English
and identify with common civic values and a shared sense of history.
"We cannot become a country of enclaves -- that's a recipe for
disaster," he said. "There has to be a sense of community, a
solidarity. . . . In the end, it's about political and social
In the past, such assimilation efforts have been undertaken by
churches, libraries and community organizations. But the sheer number
of immigrants, coupled with the migration patterns that have
scattered them across the country, has prompted the federal
government to get involved.
Not everyone agrees that's a good idea. Some say that community
groups are better equipped to lead integration efforts because they
are on a grass-roots level and can tailor programs to particular
immigrant communities. Others say that the U.S. should limit the
number of legal immigrants it admits rather than spend taxpayer money
on assimilation programs.
"The current levels of immigration are about five times higher than
our tradition," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations
for NumbersUSA, an anti-illegal immigration group. "In our view, the
best way to assure assimilation is to reduce the numbers. . . . That
means more resources per capita for new immigrants coming in."
Experts and groups on both sides of the immigration debate have
praised the government's assimilation efforts because they can help
bridge gaps and reduce tensions that occur between newly arrived
immigrants and their communities.
That in turn will help create a more unified society where newcomers
are participating politically, economically and socially, said Tomás
Jiménez, a sociology professor at UC San Diego. Jiménez stressed that
over time, immigrants do learn English and assimilate on their own.
They integrate by going to college, advancing in their careers,
moving to different neighborhoods and marrying outside their ethnic
groups, he said.
Studies have shown that although Spanish is primarily spoken by first-
generation immigrants, its use fades dramatically by the second and
"Immigrant integration is not something that takes place because a
group of people suddenly decide they want to integrate," Jiménez
said. "It's a gradual process, and it happens because people are
pursuing their economic interests."
The new wave of integration programs are different from past efforts
because officials are not pushing immigrants to give up their
language or cultural traditions in order to learn English or embrace
U.S. ideals, experts said.
The program is designed for legal immigrants, but undocumented
immigrants can access the website and take English classes. Jenks of
NumbersUSA said government funds shouldn't be used to help illegal
"Any time an illegal immigrant comes in contact with the U.S.
government, the result should be deportation," she said.
Over the last five years, Aguilar said, the United States has
welcomed 5 million legal permanent residents and naturalized nearly 3
million new citizens. The U.S. established a Task Force on New
Americans, published a Guide for New Immigrants booklet in multiple
languages and started the website to provide basic information about
healthcare, education and volunteer opportunities for immigrants.
The Office of Citizenship is holding regional training sessions for
teachers and collaborating with community colleges, immigrant-rights
groups and libraries to integrate immigrants and offer more civics
and English courses. The task force also introduced a web-based
training program last fall for teachers.
Recently at L.A. City College, Aguilar taught a civics class to a few
dozen immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. After a
brief discussion of the Bill of Rights and the three branches of
government, he encouraged the students to volunteer in their
communities and continue studying about the U.S.
"You are showing the rest of the country that immigrants want to
become American," he said. "Becoming American doesn't mean giving up
your culture. Being American is three things: learning English,
learning our system of government and learning our history."
Besides the government's involvement, community groups and businesses
are doing their part to encourage assimilation by offering classes
and teaching new immigrants everyday skills.
During Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza taught
Mexican immigrants how to prepare turkeys. But they added their own
Oaxacan twist: mole sauce. The restaurant also donated 30 turkeys to
"We were talking about assimilation, and one of the biggest American
values is giving and donating," said Martha Ugarte, who handles
special events for the restaurant.
In North Hills, Aztlan cyber-cafe owner Edith Jose offers free
weekend classes to immigrants who want to learn how to surf the Web,
send e-mails and job-search online. Jose said computer skills are
critical for immigrants to get ahead, in part because many
applications are posted only online.
"The Latino community is motivated to learn," said Luz Ruiz, who
recently attended a session at the cafe. "We don't want to be at the
bottom. We want to get ahead."
Ruiz, an immigrant from Mexico, said she also wanted to take classes
so she could save money by paying bills online and better monitor her
children's Internet use.