Initial debate has begun in the Senate this week on the long-awaited so-called Gang of 8 Senate immigration reform bill. New York Senator Charles Schumer is aiming for passage by July 4 and we can expect heated exchanges about some familiar themes: border security, a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, and the extent of a guest worker program for agriculture. But the goals of a more obscure section of the legislation are just as important. The proposed Office of New Americans, designed to encourage what used to be called assimilation (or, in the politically correct parlance of the bill, “integration”), will try to use a special commission, public foundation, and some federal assistance to help immigrants “join the mainstream of civic life.” Theres likely to be dispute about just what that means—and how much should be spent toward the goal. But there should be broad agreement in any bill that passes that we should seek an increase in the number of immigrants who speak English, and in the number who become citizens.
Finding effective ways to realize these goals are far from side issues. Helping to bring the latest—and, in sheer numbers, the largest ever—wave of immigrants into the cultural mainstream will be crucial in defusing what may be lingering anti-immigrant sentiment, even if reform legislation passes. But the mission to welcome and help new Americans to assimilate need not, and should not, be reserved to government. It offers a significant opportunity for American philanthropy. Historically—especially in the early twentieth century—non-governmental organizations have taken the lead in encouraging assimilation. There are good reasons to think that privately-funded programs could best do the job again today.
Its important to understand that the scale of the challenge is large. In sheer numbers (if not as a percentage of overall population), the late twentieth century immigration is our largest ever. The Census Bureau has estimated (in 2010) the foreign-born population of the United States at 40 million, making this country home to by far the largest number of immigrants in the world. But more than half (51.5 percent) reported they spoke English less than “very well.” And, according to the Migration Policy Institute, less than half (18.1 million of the 40 million) had become naturalized citizens as of 2011. At the same time, finding an available seat in an inexpensive class in an English class can be difficult. The New York Times has reported waiting times as long as two years for free English classes. And, except for those over 55, one must take the citizenship test in English. Theres a large need for preparation for citizenship tests, as well. Overall, 55 percent of immigrants (reports the Pew Research Center) are not citizens. Even among immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years, some 30 percent (according to Duke University immigrant scholar Jacob Vigdor) have not naturalized.
This is, however, far from an unprecedented problem. In the early twentieth century immigration peaked at 15 percent of the overall population—at a time when government social services were far less extensive. It was also a time that saw the emergence of a nationwide network of more than 400 privately-supported “settlement houses,” at which instruction in English was a mainstay. Jane Addams, founder of Chicagos Hull House, wrote in her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House, of the importance of helping immigrants learn English. Her reasoning is still sound.
Even a meager knowledge of English may mean an opportunity to work in a factory versus nonemployment, or it may mean a question of life or death when a sharp command must be understood in order to avoid the danger of a descending crane.
The Gang of 8 bill implicitly acknowledges that government today cant do the job alone. It proposes that a United States Citizenship Foundation—aimed at helping immigrants to naturalize but also to overcome “barriers faced by those seeking naturalization,” such as the language barrier—help state and local governments and even accept and distribute private financial support. But theres a good case to be made that philanthropy and a non-profits independent of government would be better suited to the job. As long ago as 1894, in his classic book American Charities, Amos Warner warned against the state being involved in assistance that “cannot easily be reduced to a routine; [that] requires a degree of individualization of applicants rarely found in the conduct of public offices.”
Thats the case in one of the best English-language instruction programs in the country today—Austin, Texas-based English at Work. Founder Maile Broccoli-Hickey—who, 10 years ago, saw first-hand when she worked at a local restaurant how difficult it was for her Spanish-speaking co-workers to get to English classes they wanted to take—had the idea of bringing English instruction to the workplace. Today, English at Work has contracts to do just that with major employers in central Texas—including a major hospital which estimates its saved $250,000 in employee turnover costs. That theres need for the English at Work model–and for imitation and adaptation of it—is reinforced by a story Hickey tells about a competitor she faced: a local community college. An Austin hotel, whose business she had courted, chose instead to start a relationship with the school, whose classes would be offered at no charge. But, with little invested, students dropped out in large numbers and the program proved ineffective. The curriculum wasnt tailored to meet the needs of the hotel.
Its a perfect example of the limits of government-supported social services: inflexibility and ineffectiveness even in a situation when the provider (the community college) is making its best effort to deal with a “customer.” Indeed, the hotel canceled the class entirely—a month early. English at Work, which has customized curriculum to fits specific workplaces (think of the busboy who wants to become a bartender) has now filled the gap. (English at Work supplements its charitable support with fees from both employers and those taking the class.) Though small—it hopes to teach 600 students this year—it offers an approach that the many cities now integrating large, poor immigrant populations may want to emulate and adapt.
But theres no need for a one-size-fits-all approach. Classes in churches, at neighborhood social clubs, or in the evening at local schools, high school service-learning projects—they all could work. In Chicago, the United Neighborhood Organization, which manages a large group of charter schools, has held classes for parents seeking the skills they need to pass the citizenship test. The result has been almost 80,000 naturalizations over the past 20 years.
Of course, donors across the U.S. are free to provide support for the proposed Citizenship Foundation. But they might better look around in their own backyards and help those local organizations already doing a good job teaching English and running citizenship classes. Donors could, as well, band together to start new organizations, pooling their resources to find top-notch social entrepreneurs to build and run them. Major employers might want to announce their own on-site classes—much as Jane Addams anticipated more than a century ago. “We could imagine the business man teaching the immigrant his much needed English and arithmetic.”
The point is this: Helping newly-legalized—and already-legal immigrants—adapt to American life is a job we need not rely on government alone to do.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/06/12/gang-of-8-bill-and-immigrant-assimilation-opportunity-for-philanthropy/