A Statement of Principles for American NGOs dealing with Immigrant Assimilation

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on February 18, 2011

Like much else in American society, the development of organizations that help new immigrants has proceeded in an ad hoc way. That is part of the nature of our society noted as long ago as Alexis de Tocqueville's trip to the United States in 1831. The general rule of American culture has been that voluntary associations spring up to address civic needs.

In the field of helping new immigrants, whether legal or not, the groups are many and varied. And while these NGOs, voluntary and advocacy groups are often the entities that have the most personal contact with new immigrants, their goals and motives vary significantly. Some want to influence immigration policy, some want to provide help to new immigrants regardless of their legal status, some want to expand their organizations and their clout, and some want a mixture of all three. Rarely is the stated purpose or sole focused goal of such organizations to help new immigrants become acculturated, assimilated, and emotionally attached to their new national community.

Some perspective on that issue was recently brought to public attention by British Prime Minister David Cameron's speech on the dangers of the state supporting separate and parallel societies within his county. He raised the issue of British non-governmental organizations that receive government money and yet to do seem to be providing either the services or perspective that were assumed to be their goals.

He asked how then should we judge whether these organizations are living up to their stated intentions and replied:

"So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separation? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations – so, no public money, no sharing of platforms with ministers at home."

I'd like to propose here not a set of questions for organizations that receive government money to help in their stated goals of helping new immigrants, but rather a set of principles. Still, the many thousands of immigrant-helping organizations are important enough as front-line representatives of America's response to new immigrants that some clarity of public expectations is in order.

Principles for Non-Governmental Organizations Receiving Public Funding for Helping New Immigrants (DRAFT)

1. Public financial support for non-governmental NGOs, voluntary, civic, religious, and legal groups is given with the expectation that groups receiving funding will honor the government's commitment to ensure that new legal immigrants are helped to become part of America's national community.

2. Appropriate activities can be grouped under the following headings: acculturation, integration, and attachment. Acculturation consists in helping new immigrants understand the myriad manifestations of American cultural in all of its forms and find a comfortable fit with their preferences and choices. Integration activities are whose direct purpose is to help new immigrants master and navigate American economic, social, civic, and political institutions and practices. Learning English is central to all of these but also such tasks as helping new legal immigrants finding housing or work, or how to get car insurance or find a doctor are all the kinds of routine activities that are not common knowledge among new immigrants.

Ultimately, the purpose of helping new immigrants traverse and master American cultural, political, and economic life is to not only make them feel more at home, but to help them develop feelings of positive emotional attachment and commitment to their new national community. Organizations that receive public funds agree to make these objectives a focus of their work with new immigrants and develop and implement programs that are consistent with this goal.

3. The government in the United States, whether federal, state, or local, is committed to welcoming new legal immigrants and their families to their new country and assisting them in efforts build a successful life here. This partnership with local organizations is meant to help implement that goal. Given U.S. immigration law and limited resources, it is imperative that only those persons eligible for such help by virtue of their immigration status benefit from this partnership effort.

Therefore groups receiving funds under this partnership agree that they will only make their programs and resources available to those legally entitled to them.

4. The focus of government partnerships with NGOs, voluntary, civic, religious, and legal groups working with immigrants is to help them provide services and resources that will help these newly arrived legal immigrants become integrated into American social, economic, and civic life. These activities must be strictly non-partisan and non-political.

Therefore, groups receiving public funds agree to refrain from taking partisan or political positions on immigration policy or other political issues and to refrain from joining with or otherwise providing material or personal support to any political advocacy organization whose purpose is to influence public policy.

Members of groups receiving public funds are free to speak out on any issue, so long as they make clear that they are doing so as private citizens, and not as members of organizations receiving funding.

I appreciate that such a list of principles, even though provisional, is likely to be controversial. Critics are likely to say it is unnecessary, unenforceable, and violation of the rights of these organizations to decide how they will define and implement the help that they offer.

On the other hand, public money used for public purposes comes with the right to define what those public purposes are and set the framework within which that work should be carried out.

It is not to much to ask that those organization charged with helping new legal immigrants become Americans actually commit to doing so.

Next: "European Multiculturalism's Lessons for the U.S.: The Psychology of Belonging"