Third, whatever immigration reform is enacted, it must be flexible enough to conform to changing economic conditions. It is impossible to predict how many immigrant workers we are going to need two years from now, much less 20, nor is it possible to know precisely what skills will be most needed in the future. Immigration legislation should include triggers based on economic indicators that increase the number of work visas available when the economy is expanding or when certain skills are in short supply, and decrease the number when unemployment is high.
Finally, we must rededicate ourselves to assimilating immigrants who live here. The job of doing so will be easier if we give preference to immigrants who already speak English, regardless of their country of origin. Those who want to come to the United States will have an incentive to study English before they come, and their adjustment will be much easier once they arrive.
We also have to ensure that the children of immigrants learn English quickly when they enter public schools, which means adopting good English immersion programs for children who don't speak the language. And we need to improve our civics and American history curricula so that newcomers learn about their new country.
The last thing we need or want is a large group that is isolated by language and becomes a permanent subculture within our society. The fear that this is already happening drives much of the immigration hysteria that has dominated the debate over the last year. But prejudice and animosity toward the foreign-born won't make assimilation happen. Congress should bear that in mind and not fan the flames of ignorance and bigotry when it takes up immigration reform next year.
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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