THE CONFUSIONS and uncertainties of President Bush's immigration plan were nicely captured in The New York Times's descriptions of it. On Wednesday, a front-page times headline announced: "Plan Effectively Offers Amnesty -- Fight Is Seen In Congress." On Thursday, the paper's lead editorial emphasized that "the president's guidelines clearly do not constitute a sweeping amnesty.
"Obviously, Bush's proposal raises more questions than it answers. It would temporarily legalize the status of millions of illegal but employed immigrants by making them eligible for renewable three-year work permits. But how often those permits could be renewed, and what would happen when they expired, no one seems to know.
Under Bush's plan, illegal immigrants would be allowed to apply for permanent legal residence -- a green card -- and eventual citizenship "in the normal way." On the other hand, Bush said, they will be given no advantage over would-be immigrants who haven't broken the law. Considering how long the wait for a green card can be, doesn't that mean that illegals signing up for the new program would have no realistic hope of qualifying for permanent residence? And that being the case, won't many of them slip back into illegality after their temporary permit expires? Or simply avoid the program altogether?
Give the president credit for addressing an issue that most politicians have refused to touch -- how to handle the 10 million or so illegal immigrants living in the United States. Credit him, too, with acknowledging that homeland security is badly compromised when hundreds of thousands of people enter the country illegally each year. He is still a long way from showing that he has come up with a proposal that can actually solve both of those problems.
What to do about illegal immigration, how to better control the borders, whether the number of lawful immigrants permitted should be raised or lowered, how to deal with refugees, whether preference should be given to immigrants who possess certain skills -- these are the questions around which most public discussion of immigration usually revolves. Almost never raised, at least not openly, is a subject that is ultimately more important than any of the others: What is the best way to turn immigrants into Americans?
The answer is assimilation -- or, as it used to be called in the United States 80 or 90 years ago, "Americanization." Assimilation is the key to preserving national unity and fostering common civic values in a nation that comprises hundreds of ethnic backgrounds and millions of foreign-born residents. It is the most effective mechanism for making real the motto "E Pluribus Unum" -- out of many, one. The world over, ethnic difference plays out as ethnic hatred and violence. Yet the people of the United States, the most ethnically diverse nation on earth, have been able to live together in relative harmony and tolerance. How have they done it? Through assimilation.
For generations, immigrants knew from the day they arrived that they were expected to become "good Americans." That meant learning English and accepting it as the national tongue. It meant getting a job and being productive members of society. It meant celebrating American democracy. It meant becoming a US citizen, and holding that citizenship in high esteem.
None of this implied that immigrants or their children had to erase every trace of their ancestral culture. Quite the contrary -- as the world's great international melting pot, America has been unusually willing to accommodate foreign customs, dishes, holidays, and languages. "Assimilation does not require immigrants to surrender their ethnic heritage," Peter Salins writes in Assimilation, American Style, which argues convincingly that assimilation is critical to America's vitality and unity. "It is about people of different racial, religious, linguistic, or cultural backgrounds believing they are irrevocably part of the same national family."
But in recent decades, the assimilationist ethic has been badly undermined. The rise of corrosive "multiculturalism," the denigration of American history and values, the growth of the welfare state, the affirmative-action mindset that assigns preferences on the basis of race and ethnicity -- all of these have weakened the assimilationist creed. And they have done so just as the influx of immigrants has surged to levels not seen since early in the 20th century.
With the decline of assimilation has come an increase in ethnic militancy -- and a growing hostility to immigrants. Both were on display in the wake of President Bush's address: Hispanic activists condemned him for doing too little and anti-immigration groups blasted him for doing too much. As the immigration debate heats up, so will the acrimony and distrust that the decline of assimilation has engendered. That, more than any other, is the immigration issue we should be focused on.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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