- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Bush administration announced a new effort yesterday to try to help new immigrants and new U.S. citizens learn English and assimilate into American society, complete with work kits and a Web site to help new arrivals find English classes and study for the citizenship test.

It’s the first major step of the New Americans Task Force, created by President Bush last year to boost the assimilation of new immigrants as one of his five pillars in a successful immigration plan.

The highlight is a Web site, www.welcometoUSA.gov, which went online yesterday and directs users to other sites where they can locate local English classes, find volunteer opportunities or get preparation materials for the naturalization test.

Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said the project is an attempt to help immigrants assimilate but also to understand their own role and responsibilities.

“People need to come here and feel welcome, they need to come here and feel like they belong,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “They need to come here and feel as American as the Founding Fathers the day they raise their hand and take the oath of allegiance.”

Assimilation is a hot-button issue in the immigration debate, with many Americans convinced that current immigrants do not want to assimilate in the way past generations did. A recent CBS-New York Times poll found that 62 percent of those surveyed thought recent immigrants were slow to learn English, double the percentage who said immigrants try to learn English “within a reasonable amount of time.”

Immigrant rights organizations dispute that characterization, pointing to data that shows they learn at the same rate as previous generations. The groups also say classes are full, and the problem is not a lack of interest but a lack of space.

Last June, Mr. Bush signed an executive order creating the task force on the same day he visited with a Catholic Charities center in Omaha, Neb., that works to help immigrants assimilate.

“One aspect of making sure we have an immigration system that works, that’s orderly and fair, is to actively reach out and help people assimilate into our country. That means learn the values and history and language of America,” Mr. Bush said at the time.

The task force has spent about $1.5 million so far, though that doesn’t include staff time.

Mr. Gonzalez, whose agency administers green cards and naturalization, said yesterday the U.S. has the best record in the world at integrating newcomers.

“We are the most successful immigrant-assimilation project in the history of the world, quite frankly,” he said. “The reason we are as successful as we are is we have essentially taken away ethnicity from citizenship. You pledge allegiance, you swear an oath to a concept, to something bigger than yourself.”

USCIS officials said applying for citizenship is a personal decision, but most who are eligible do choose to take that step.

Alfonso Aguilar, chief of USCIS‘ Office of Citizenship, said about 60 percent of green-card holders, or legal permanent residents, do become naturalized citizens. He said between 7 million and 8 million current green-card holders are eligible for citizenship but have not taken that step.

Later this year, the task force will begin offering training to help organizations teach civics and citizenship to immigrants, starting with a program in Raleigh, N.C. — one of the new hubs for recent immigrants.

The Web site also features a naturalization guide that runs more than 100 pages, with tips on how to find a job or a home, legal rights and obligations of immigrants, and information on enrolling children in school.

The guide is available in 10 translations, including French, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and Russian.