Washington, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- author of a new book on immigration policy in America says U.S. institutions are no longer as good as they used to be in helping new arrivals become Americans.
John Miller, a political commentator and the author of the book, "The Unmaking of Americans," told RFE/RL that immigrants who come to the U.S. today are met by American policymakers and institutions that have largely abandoned the struggle to help newcomers assimilate.
Explains Miller: "We are no longer as good as we used to be in the U.S. at turning foreigners into Americans. Their patriotic attachment does not transfer to the United States when they come here and settle down."
The U.S. has traditionally been seen as a "melting pot," a metaphor invoking the image of America as a foundry that combines different component metals -- represented by immigrants from various countries -- into a new metal, Americans.
Miller says that in the past, the U.S. had a policy that helped many immigrants settle comfortably into the nation and assimilate well into society. He adds that the Ellis Island generation of immigrants who came to America between 1880 and 1920 are remembered "very fondly" by most Americans.
But Miller says that for decades, lawmakers and politicians on both the state and national levels have been steadily weakening the process of immigrant assimilation. He says this has caused a backlash against immigrants from ordinary Americans who feel the newcomers don't understand or respect the nation's culture and society.
Miller says one of the policies to blame for the backlash is that of "bilingual education." This policy permits immigrants to send their children to schools where lessons are taught in the child's native language, instead of in English. Miller says that as these children get older, it becomes much harder for them to learn English and therefore, be able to assimilate easily into American society.
However, on Tuesday California residents voted to do away with bilingual education in their state. About 25 percent of the students who attend California's public schools have limited English skills. California schools will now replace bilingual education with a one-year English immersion program. This new policy paves the way for other U.S. states with large immigrant populations, such as Texas, to do the same.
But Miller says there are still other major problems contributing to the breakdown of immigrant's assimilation, such as the U.S. government's ineffective and often disordered approach at curbing illegal immigration.
Says Miller: "The fact that so much illegal immigration exists causes ordinary Americans to lose faith in legal immigration."
Miller also says the policies of affirmative action -- granting special rights to people of a certain racial background or gender -- should be abolished. Miller insists that individuals should be granted privileges on the basis of their merits and strengths, not because of the color of their skin or the racial or ethnic group to which they belong.
But perhaps even more troublesome, says Miller, is that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has recently come under enormous pressure from various organizations and lawmakers to drop the minimum standards for immigration. This includes the requirements of understanding a little English and passing a simple test on American history and government, he adds.
Says Miller: "You want to encourage citizenship. But you don't give out citizenship just because someone fills out an application form. There are certain things we ask of immigrants. At a very minimum, they have to live in the United States for five years before they can even qualify for citizenship. At another level, we ask that they have a command of at least simple English -- to speak, read and write at the third-grade level -- and we also require them to pass a test on U.S. history and government."
Miller says it is critical that the INS maintain these minimum standards. He adds that these standards have been historically and traditionally a part of U.S. immigration policy.
Explains Miller: "Historically, the founding fathers asked: 'How are immigrants who have no ancestors in America's past going to attach themselves to this country?' And the answer was that it would be through political participation."
But Miller says the American intelligentsia has failed immigrants by not sticking with the traditional policy of helping them become well assimilated into U.S. society and political life.
According to Miller, elements of both the political left and right in the U.S. have somehow abandoned the idea of assimilation altogether and have reduced immigration policy to a debate of extremes.
Says Miller: "On the right, you get nativists who don't think immigrants are capable of assimilation....On the left, you have the radical multi-culturalists who don't think assimilation is desirable....The whole debate is defined by these extremes. And what is lost is a sensible center which says we should have some level of immigration to this country, but we also have to insist that immigrants assimilate."
Miller says an incident at a soccer game in the California city of Los Angeles earlier this year renewed the contentious debate over immigration policy in the United States. The game pitted the U.S. and Mexican national soccer teams.
Miller says the U.S. team listened in frustration as fans, mostly Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals, booed during the U.S. national anthem. Then, a person in the stadium who tried to unfurl an American flag was attacked -- all of this occurring on U.S. soil.
Says Miller: "This is very troubling....It is a crisis, frankly, not brought upon by the immigrants themselves, but by American institutions that no longer know how to assimilate people. We've been very good in the past, traditionally, at helping foreigners become Americans. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants. It is one of our proudest traditions....Unfortunately, immigrants coming today are greeted by an entirely different set of institutions that have different expectations of them, and often no expectations at all."
Miller says that Americans are connected by their dedication to a set of political principles, and not by a bloodline, a shared ancestry or history. It is this devotion to the principles of freedom that binds the nation together, he explains. If immigrants do not learn about them and respect these principles, assimilation will be difficult or even impossible, he adds.
But Miller says assimilation does not mean immigrants have to abandon their roots or native culture. He adds that immigrants throughout American history have deeply enriched the society and culture through contributions to literature, science, art, music and cuisine.
Says Miller: "America is a much better country today because immigrants have come from all over the world and strengthened our culture."
This belief is shared by Gregory Petrosian, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Armenia. Petrosian came to the U.S. in 1989 after marrying an American who was studying in Armenia. He became an American citizen in 1995.
Petrosian told RFE/RL that although he considers himself an American now, he still wants his children to learn about Armenia.
Says Petrosian: "I think it is important, not just for me, but for all immigrants, that we take what is best from our cultures and share it with Americans. It is important to me that my kids know where I came from and understand my heritage. But I also understand that my kids will be Americans."
Petrosian says he became an American citizen because he believed it would help him integrate better into society. The most important part of that integration, he adds, is being able to vote.
Petrosian says: "I have always been interested in participating in American politics. I choose a candidate, I choose an issue, I even make a financial contribution to a candidate I support. I also participate in local elections. I really believe you can make changes happen by voting."
Petrosian says the hardest part of assimilating into American society was learning to speak English. But he says people were friendly and encouraging, and over time, he became more confident.
He says he thinks the INS should not abolish the minimum requirements it now has for people to become American citizens. He says learning to speak English and taking a simple history test helps immigrants understand what is important to Americans.
He says he is disturbed by incidents such as the one that occurred during that soccer match in California. He says he believes part of the reason for such behavior is that people come to America for the wrong reasons.
Says Petrosian: "I see a lot of people who immigrate here, who don't appreciate the value of this country. They came here for, in my opinion, economic reasons -- to have a car and make a little more money than they could in their country. And this is terrible."
Petrosian says if people come to the U.S. only to better themselves financially and refuse to learn English or understand American culture, then they will not form any attachment to the nation or society. He says that saddens him.
He explains: "The first thing I realized when I came here was that I'm in a country where I can do a lot of things. By integrating myself into society, I can help myself reach my goals here. That is what distinguishes me from other immigrants. I appreciate the freedom being an American gives me. But I also understand that with this freedom comes responsibility."
Overall, Petrosian says he has no regrets about his new life in America.
He adds: "I am proud to have received American citizenship. But I believe not everyone is entitled to receive it. You have to deserve it and earn it. And then, of course, it means so much more."