About 10 years ago, the reputation of George W. Bush was not as a staunch Evangelical neo-conservative but as a moderate Republican with measurable support from the Democratic factions of his state. He was even known as a popular governor among the Latino population of Texas, many of whom voted for him.
Now, after two consecutive terms as President, those kinds of analyses seem comical and tragic. There is a $2.7 billion dollar border fence being built right now in almost 700 miles of the desert; the Border Patrol has doubled in size in only 8 years; and more than 33,000 people have been seized and detained his year alone in scores of ICE raids across the country. Amid these horrors of the Bush Administration’s policies and practices relating to immigrants comes this report, released just weeks before Bush is to ride off into that sunset.
In 2006, Preisdent Bush signed Executive Order 13404, an effort “to strengthen the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and Federal, State, and local agencies to help legal immigrants embrace the common core of American civic culture, learn our common language, and fully become Americans.” The order pursued these lofty goals in the creation of the Task Force on New Americans, who recently issued their final report, Building an Americanization Movement for the Twenty-first Century: A Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on New Americans.
It took almost two and a half years for a bunch of high-level government bureaucrats to learn a watered-down and selective version of what immigration scholars and activists have known for a few generations. What filtered their understanding was a fixation on seeing the social, political, and economic marginalization of immigrant populations in the US as the product of the immigrants themselves, the product of a desire to remain apart from the mainstream society.
This view ignores, racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, economic marginalization, state repression, and a host of other forces that make living in the shadows what it is. But it also discounts the notable ways immigrants do, in fact, assimilate despite all this. [See here and here.]
The report offers a glimpse into neo-conservative thought, reflecting (among other things) a chronic inability to envision meaningful change apart from private sector initiatives. This ideological foundation provided the context of their list of ten recommendations:
1. An Americanization Movement for the Twenty-first Century
2. Viewing Integration as a Two-way Street
3. Improved Legislation on Integration and Citizenship
4. Federal Celebration of Citizenship
5. Federal Leadership on Integration
6. Enhanced E-learning Tools for Adults
7. Encouraging the Private Sector to Promote Integration
8. Mobilizing the Volunteer Community
9. Increasing Integration Stakeholders
10. Broadened Analysis and Evaluation of Integration
The primary demographic concerns of the group are two-fold. First, the growth in the immigrant population at large is set to surpass records set in previous periods in U.S. history. In the early 1900s, at the peak of immigration to the U.S., about 14% of the total population was classified as foreign-born. In the past two decades, the percentage of the U.S. that is foreign-born has risen from 7.9% in 1990 to 12.5% in 2006. Current estimates are that by 2025 the U.S. will surpass its record of 14% and that by 2050 about 19% of the population will be foreign-born. Already, the number of immigrants entering the nation in recent times is greater than at any other time in U.S. history.
Second, the Task Force is concerned with the settlement patterns of the current immigrant flow. Unlike in previous periods, measurable immigrant populations are now presenting “challenges” to place that are not “traditional gateways” (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.). Just in the first years of the 21st century, the population of immigrants has increased in Washington State (by 21%), Michigan (by 20%), and Virginia (by 12%), to name but a few. Unlike those of us living in Latinolandia, most Americans aren’t used to brown faces in their daily lives–other than American Ferrara and Jimmy Smits.
What this all means for the Task Force is the that we are becoming a nation in jeopardy of dividing into factions (Huntington’s great fear) and that “we” do not have a strategy to deal with that. Their strategy is assimilation.
To their credit, the Task Force begins well. They write “A nation based not on ethnicity, race, religion, or culture, the United States of America is a country in which people from every background come together to govern themselves in a political framework inclusive of all.” (vii) While they share this analysis in passing, it serves as the anchor for the rest of the report. It also stands in fundamental disagreement with so many in this nation’s history and, sadly, its present. This is the fundamental crux of immigration politics in this nation–the fact spelled out above in tension with the lived and historic reality that the U.S. has been a nation founded on and dedicated to white supremacy.
The Task Force advocates for promoting an Americanization effort that will lead to a kind of non-racial, non-cultural, non-religious assimilation. They define Americanization as “the process of integration by which immigrants become part of our communities and by which our communities and the nation learn from and adapt to their presence.” (7) In short-hand, it is a “unifying civic identity” which includes “1) embracing the principles of American democracy; 2) identifying with U.S. history; and 3) communicating in English.
Here’s where we start to stumble. One of the major flaws of the report is the skewed vision of language. To most social scientists, language is cultural. It is fundamental to one’s identity. To the Task Force it is just a form of communication. Leaving aside the fact that English fluency seems to be an inevitability, the Task Force might ask themselves if it is only about communication, why is it so important to them that people speak English? Couldn’t we create a Task Force to encourage bilingualism in the United States? Or to encourage the language protection rights of our citizens by requiring more materials to be mulitlingual according to need?
But this is the least of the reports problems. The most glaring one is the unproblematic ways the Task Force embrces the possibility of assimilation as a non-racial and non-cultural process. Despite the avalanche of academic work that has shown early 20th century Americanization efforts to be steeped in rigid and hierarchical notions of race and gender–in effect seeking to teach people how to be proper upper-class whites–the Task Force sees these early efforts as something of a model for the 21st century.
If this is what happens when neocons try to be humanists, then I’d rather have them cool it and just embrace the Robert Novack kind of caring, as warm and fuzzy as a slab of marble.