Even as Congress prepares to debate whether to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants and give them a path to citizenship, analysts are cautioning lawmakers to focus on the other part of immigration: assimilating them fully into America.
All sides in the debate agree that assimilation is critical, but in a report being released Monday, the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, says the country has failed on that account in recent years.
They found that immigrants — even those who earn U.S. citizenship — have far less attachment to their new home than native-born Americans. Among the findings are that native-born citizens are more likely to view the U.S. as "better" than other countries, more likely to see English as central to the American experience, and more likely to see the U.S. Constitution as a higher legal authority than international law.
John Fonte, director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute, said those findings show a glaring hole in the immigration system that should be fixed if Congress is going to add millions more immigrant citizens to the country.
"We see this as an important part of any immigration project. Whether it's comprehensive or in pieces, this is one of the pieces," Mr. Fonte said. "If it's comprehensive, what could be more important than the end of the whole immigration process, assimilation. It is at the core."
At root is a long-running debate over what it means to be American and whether the country is instilling those values in new arrivals.
Mr. Fonte and his colleagues looked at Harris Interactive polling from a 2008 study commissioned by the Bradley Foundation Project on American National Identity. Researchers polled nearly 2,500 citizens, both native-born and naturalized, and found large gaps in how they viewed the Constitution, America's role in the world and other issues.
The study showed that 65 percent of native-born citizens said the U.S. was better than other nations and 3 percent said it was worse. Among immigrants, 44 percent said the U.S. was better, 7 percent said it was worse and 27 percent said it was about the same. A stunning 22 percent weren't sure which was correct.
Naturalized citizens were understandably more likely to see themselves as "citizens of the world" than the native-born, and were more likely to have positive views of multinational corporations.
Mr. Fonte said the blame doesn't lie with the immigrants themselves but rather with the multicultural movement in the U.S., which he said has spent decades sending ambiguous messages about American exceptionalism, and with the federal government that has funded some of those efforts.
"The fault is not the immigrants' — the fault is the elites who are running down patriotic assimilation for the last 40 years," he said. "They receive the wrong message from us. The fault is ours, not theirs."
But Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said worries over assimilation are unfounded. He pointed to the experiences of Hispanic immigrants over the past few decades and said he sees evidence of deep patriotic attachment to the U.S.
"When you have people putting their lives on the line — you have a lot of legal permanent residents who join the military, put their lives on the line for a country they want to join — that's powerful evidence," he said.
"When you look at the disproportionate number of Latino immigrants who win Medals of Honor, when you look at intermarriage rates, homeownership rates, learning English, the consensus is in — new immigrants become new Americans and embrace this country fully."
The debate over assimilation is not new, but it is getting less public attention than it did during the last major immigration debate in 2007, said Alfonso Aguilar, who ran U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Aguilar said Mr. Bush made assimilation of immigrants a focus of his administration. That included rewriting the citizenship test to help make sure applicants were learning fundamental principles of American democracy, not just memorizing facts.
Mr. Aguilar said Mr. Obama has not made the same effort and that part of the reason is that he treats assimilation "like another entitlement program" rather than a set of values to be taught.
"Assimilation has to be championed by someone. Normally it's the president, and President Bush did. But this president really hasn't at all," said Mr. Aguilar, who now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
In the current immigration debate, many conservatives argue against offering illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, saying that it would reward lawbreaking, which would undermine American values.
But Mr. Aguilar said conservatives who also value assimilation should promote citizenship because it is the single biggest step toward assimilation.
The 2007 bill that Mr. Bush oversaw contained a pathway to citizenship and several specific provisions to boost assimilation, including designating English as the "national language" of the U.S. and trying to promote what the bill called "patriotic integration" through federally backed citizenship, civics and English classes.
Congressional aides and others who have been tracking the negotiations this year say they expect lawmakers to include similar provisions in the bills they are writing.
Mr. Fonte said the government can help in assimilation by stopping funding for multicultural and bilingual education programs.
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