Opinion Columns & Blogs

William McKenzie: America needs to modernize the melting pot

On those days this year when I picked up my children from school, I often felt like I was operating in a parallel universe from many of the other parents. Their skin is brown. Mine is white. They speak Spanish. I speak English. I work one job. Some of them work two.

So we live in separate worlds, except for meetings at school. This is troubling, given that this is a country where we pride ourselves on being a melting pot.

The belief in one society for us all is why I like the new Senate immigration bill. A core part of the bipartisan bill – mostly lost amid clamor about securing the borders – would make it easier for immigrants to assimilate into American society.

A lengthy section is devoted to ensuring new citizens become part of the larger culture. For example, it would create an Office of Citizenship and New Americans to promote ways to educate and train immigrants about becoming naturalized citizens.

The office must report the progress that immigrants and their children make in learning English, advancing economically and becoming part of civic life. It would have national goals and present data about whether they are being met. If not, recommendations would be made to better flow immigrants into the mainstream.

Also, the bill would set up a public-private foundation that would make grants to local municipalities to help them integrate immigrants. The money would go to nonprofits, veterans’ organizations and other on-the-ground groups as they work with immigrants on everything from mastering English to understanding civics to becoming engaged parents.

In short, the Senate bill is ensuring that immigrants, those here legally and illegally, grasp what citizenship means and how they can become part of the American whole.

Realistically, this integration won’t happen overnight. It may become more of a reality with the children of illegal immigrants who become citizens. But the goals the legislation raises are the kind of work that civic groups, churches, schools and governments must engage in to modernize the melting pot.

To be sure, some reject the melting pot concept. A robust debate continues over how far ethnic groups should go in blending into the whole. Critics of assimilation see blending as contributing to the loss of one’s ethnic identity.

I’m not in that camp, but those who are should recognize that assimilation need not imply that everyone be like everyone else. How boring would that be?

A modernized melting pot could broaden our idea of what it means to be American. Tamar Jacoby, head of ImmigrationWorks USA, commented on this a decade ago. For immigrants to become loyal to the ideals, values and habits that have defined our country, she wrote:

“We may need a new definition, or new understanding of assimilation – a definition that makes sense today, in an era of globalization, the Internet, identity politics, niche advertising and a TV dial that offers a choice among a hundred or more different channels.

“Even as they live out the melting pot myth, today’s immigrants and their children are searching for new ways to think and talk about it, and together, they and the rest of the nation face the challenge of updating the traditional ideal.”

The immigration bill could help us find this new definition. It could teach immigrants about citizenship. At the same time, the process could broaden the sense of what it means to be an American.