The president's speech Monday evening may not settle the argument over what to do about enforcing our borders or creating a new guest worker program, but one part of the speech should unite all Americans. Unfortunately, it's the issue that often gets short shrift in the immigration debate but ought to be at its center. President Bush put it this way: "We must honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one nation out of many peoples." Fear that the newest batch of immigrants from Latin America can't, or refuse to, be absorbed into the cultural, social, and economic mainstream of American life drives much of the anti-immigrant sentiment so prevalent today.
I've mustered statistics endlessly in previous columns to demonstrate that such fears are overdrawn -- Hispanics are not only assimilating as each group before them has, but at a more rapid pace than many previous groups -- but for the moment, I want to put those arguments aside and talk about the value of assimilation. Part of the reason so many people worry that Hispanics aren't assimilating is that we've quit emphasizing the importance of assimilation in our national dialogue.
Almost 30 years ago, when I was editor of the magazine American Educator, I published a series on the immigrant experience in the early 20th century. It featured photographs taken in about 1913, when the rate of immigration was higher than it is today, along with a story on a Smithsonian exhibit that recreated a typical classroom in New York City at that time, including copies of textbooks and other materials.
In every lesson plan and schoolbook, the emphasis was on "Americanizing" the newcomers. Teachers taught children not only civics lessons, but how to dress like other Americans, and to adopt American standards of hygiene -- something almost unthinkable in today's environment, where many teachers are more worried about damaging students' self-esteem than actually teaching them how to be successful.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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