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Making for easier assimilation

Times Staff Writer

In her heart, Sonia Galdamez is Salvadoran. She speaks Spanish at home and cooks Salvadoran food for her family.

But since arriving in Los Angeles nearly two years ago, she has been sworn in as a U.S. citizen and is studying English at L.A. City College.

Galdamez said she doesn’t have to sacrifice her traditions, roots or language to become American.

“But in this country, really, they speak English,” she said. “If I want to find a good job, I have to learn it.”

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Galdamez is a model for the federal government’s massive assimilation campaign, which the Bush administration launched in 2006 and is continuing to expand. This spring, the government will offer a free Web-based English class to immigrants on its new site, www.WelcometoUSA.gov.

Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, said the goal is to help immigrants integrate into U.S. society, learn English and identify with common civic values and a shared sense of history.

“We cannot become a country of enclaves -- that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said. “There has to be a sense of community, a solidarity. . . . In the end, it’s about political and social cohesion.”

In the past, such assimilation efforts have been undertaken by churches, libraries and community organizations. But the sheer number of immigrants, coupled with the migration patterns that have scattered them across the country, has prompted the federal government to get involved.

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Not everyone agrees that’s a good idea. Some say that community groups are better equipped to lead integration efforts because they are on a grass-roots level and can tailor programs to particular immigrant communities. Others say that the U.S. should limit the number of legal immigrants it admits rather than spend taxpayer money on assimilation programs.

“The current levels of immigration are about five times higher than our tradition,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, an anti-illegal immigration group. “In our view, the best way to assure assimilation is to reduce the numbers. . . . That means more resources per capita for new immigrants coming in.”

Experts and groups on both sides of the immigration debate have praised the government’s assimilation efforts because they can help bridge gaps and reduce tensions that occur between newly arrived immigrants and their communities.

That in turn will help create a more unified society where newcomers are participating politically, economically and socially, said Tomas Jimenez, a sociology professor at UC San Diego. Jimenez stressed that over time, immigrants do learn English and assimilate on their own. They integrate by going to college, advancing in their careers, moving to different neighborhoods and marrying outside their ethnic groups, he said.

Studies have shown that although Spanish is primarily spoken by first-generation immigrants, its use fades dramatically by the second and third generation.

“Immigrant integration is not something that takes place because a group of people suddenly decide they want to integrate,” Jimenez said. “It’s a gradual process, and it happens because people are pursuing their economic interests.”

The new wave of integration programs are different from past efforts because officials are not pushing immigrants to give up their language or cultural traditions in order to learn English or embrace U.S. ideals, experts said.

The program is designed for legal immigrants, but undocumented immigrants can access the website and take English classes. Jenks of NumbersUSA said government funds shouldn’t be used to help illegal immigrants.

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“Any time an illegal immigrant comes in contact with the U.S. government, the result should be deportation,” she said.

Over the last five years, Aguilar said, the United States has welcomed 5 million legal permanent residents and naturalized nearly 3 million new citizens. The U.S. established a Task Force on New Americans, published a Guide for New Immigrants booklet in multiple languages and started the website to provide basic information about healthcare, education and volunteer opportunities for immigrants.

The Office of Citizenship is holding regional training sessions for teachers and collaborating with community colleges, immigrant-rights groups and libraries to integrate immigrants and offer more civics and English courses. The task force also introduced a web-based training program last fall for teachers.

Recently at L.A. City College, Aguilar taught a civics class to a few dozen immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. After a brief discussion of the Bill of Rights and the three branches of government, he encouraged the students to volunteer in their communities and continue studying about the U.S.

“You are showing the rest of the country that immigrants want to become American,” he said. “Becoming American doesn’t mean giving up your culture. Being American is three things: learning English, learning our system of government and learning our history.”

Besides the government’s involvement, community groups and businesses are doing their part to encourage assimilation by offering classes and teaching new immigrants everyday skills.

During Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza taught Mexican immigrants how to prepare turkeys. But they added their own Oaxacan twist: mole sauce. The restaurant also donated 30 turkeys to poor families.

“We were talking about assimilation, and one of the biggest American values is giving and donating,” said Martha Ugarte, who handles special events for the restaurant.

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In North Hills, Aztlan cyber-cafe owner Edith Jose offers free weekend classes to immigrants who want to learn how to surf the Web, send e-mails and job-search online. Jose said computer skills are critical for immigrants to get ahead, in part because many applications are posted only online.

“The Latino community is motivated to learn,” said Luz Ruiz, who recently attended a session at the cafe. “We don’t want to be at the bottom. We want to get ahead.”

Ruiz, an immigrant from Mexico, said she also wanted to take classes so she could save money by paying bills online and better monitor her children’s Internet use.

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anna.gorman@latimes.com


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