View From Lodi, CA: Assimilation?--¿Qué necesidad?

When I was very young, I overheard my Sicilian grandmother say that the four happiest days of her life were the days her three children were born and the day she became an American citizen.

My grandmother was an American through and through. She loved Teddy Roosevelt, soap operas and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Nona was a perfect example of what is known today as "patriotic assimilation."

Writing in the National Review John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, defined patriotic assimilation as occurring when newcomers leave a previous people, join the American people and "adopt" America's civic heritage.

Fonte used Abraham Lincoln's words to describe what the assimilation process should include. In Lincoln's words, newcomers should be "as though they were the blood of the blood and the flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence."

While Fonte views patriotic assimilation as crucial to the nation's future, not everyone agrees.

According to some political scientists, America needs to forget about traditional assimilation. The 21st Century, they argue, has created a "transnational" or "postnational" era wherein migrants move back and forth between nations, retain old loyalties and cultures and vote in the U.S. and their native countries. Modern transportation and communication has made it easier for today's migrants to keep old ties.

Yet a third school of thought insists that immigrants have always blended into American society and will do so again. Michael Barone, columnist for U.S. News, concludes that assimilation is an on-going process and that only nativists are worried about the fate of today's immigrants.

Who is right and who is wrong in this simmering assimilation is important. Among the things that are clear is that Barone is wrong.

No driving force toward assimilation is occurring among today's immigrants.

If you believe that learning English is the first and most logical step toward assimilation, then ample evidence exists that we're not headed in that direction..

According to statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census, a clear trend toward not learning English has developed over the last decade.

Among the Census findings are: 

  • 18% of Americans do not speak English in their own home. In California, 40% of households don't speak English.

  • 17 million Americans do not speak English very well; 7 million speak little or no English. This represents a 60% increase in the non-English speaking population since 1990.

  • Several states, including Colorado, Nevada and Georgia, saw their English deficient population triple.

To an English as a second language instructor, this data is amazing. Taken as a whole, it should mean boom times in the classroom.

Unfortunately that isn't the case. Let's look specifically at the Lodi census figures to analyze what should be (but isn't) happening to ESL enrollments.

In his April 10th column "Number of whites in Lodi declines — or has it?" News-Sentinel publisher Marty Weybret compared the ethnic changes in Lodi's population over the last decade based on Census 2000.

During the last 10 years, Lodi's Hispanic population increased 76%; and the Asian/Pacific Islander population increased 38%.

If you factor in large increases in the Hispanic and Asian populations in neighboring Galt and Lockeford, it is clear that demand for seats in ESL classes should be up—if people wanted to learn English.

But attendance at Lodi Adult School classes remains, at best, flat. With an increase of nearly 12,000 Hispanic residents in the Lodi/Galt/Lockeford area, one might anticipate a larger turnout for English classes.

Scheduling certainly isn't the problem. Fourteen different sections of ESL classes are offered throughout Lodi and North Stockton during morning, afternoon and evening hours.

English has become so unimportant in some segments that American citizenship is readily attainable to non-English speakers.

The citizenship test, which in my grandmother's era required an understanding of American civics, history and language, has been watered down to 20 simple multiple-choice questions like "What are the colors of the flag?" Applicants need score only 60% to qualify for citizenship.

Most could tell you that George Washington is the first president. That fact is printed on the widely distributed practice tests.

But if you ask the same question a different way, "Who is the father of our country?" you're met with blank stares.

As each day passes, incentives to learn English decrease. Federal, state and local governments advertise services in multiple languages. Radio, television and print media reach out to non-English speaking audiences.

As of today, the postnationalists are carrying the day. Patriotic assimilation, to my personal regret, looks like a fading dream.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.