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Out of the shadows

Immigration | As immigrants battle recessionary barriers, churches reach out to help them assimilate into society

A new report finds that the recession is making it harder for immigrants to assimilate into the United States, but churches have started helping immigrants make that transition.

A new Manhattan Institute report, "Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States," finds that the recession has slowed immigration to its lowest rate since the 1960s while also slowing down immigrants' ability to assimilate. Immigrants who arrive today are less able to find work and more likely to return home, so they have less incentive to make long-term investments (like learning English) that will help them assimilate later on, said researcher Jacob L. Vigdor, professor at Duke University.

Taking a long-term perspective, the report finds that the rate of naturalization has stayed about the same since the 1910s, even though naturalization is much more difficult now than then. In the early 1900s, about 75 percent of immigrants who didn't know English learned the language in the next 20 years. Now only 60 percent do, but this may be due to the rapid growth in immigration. Mexican-American immigrants start with lower English skills but seem to have a higher rate of progress.

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"The lack of legal status is a tremendous barrier to assimilation," said Vigdor, because it limits immigrants' ability to work their way up the economic ladder. Illegal immigrants are "relegated to the shadows of the economy," he added, and "are not assimilating the way that earlier immigrants did, because for earlier immigrants, legal status was not a question." Vigdor points out that the instability of their stay gives them less incentive to learn English or make investments that are costly at first but pay off over time.

Christian organizations and churches are now starting to help the immigrants who are "relegated to the shadows." The Immigration Service and Aid Center (ISAAC), a collaborative ministry of the Baptist General Convention and Buckner Children and Family Services, helps churches reach immigrant populations by informing churches on the legalities of helping immigrants and then helping them apply to provide services like immigrant counseling or English courses.

ISAAC does not have a political position on immigration reform, said director Richard Munoz. It simply helps churches help immigrants. All immigration bills have one thing in common: Anyone who becomes a legal citizen will have to learn English. "If you learn English, things work a lot easier," Munoz said. "You can assimilate better, you can communicate better. A lot of churches have said, 'This is something we can do. It's apolitical. We'll go out there and we'll help people learn English.'" Munoz said ISAAC initially aimed to start English as a second language programs at 10 new churches, but they are already up to 25.

One Christian group helped an illegal immigrant teen who was sexually assaulted to stay in the United States so she could testify against her attacker. Munoz said: "It can run the gamut from something as ho-hum as renewing a work permit to life-changing stuff."

The Ruth Project is one such organization. Carlos Charco, a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States to minister to this population, said that the immigrants they serve begin with tremendous barriers. Some speak a regional dialect instead of proper Spanish, so they are trying to learn both Spanish and English at the same time. But, said Charco, "they want to be part of this society. They want to be part of this community in the United States."


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