Panel Debates Immigration and Literacy Issues at Fall for the Book

Posted: October 2, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

English language acquisition, civic duty and a shared sense of history are the three most important values for immigrants to effectively assimilate in American culture, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official who was part of a Fall for the Book festival panel on Thursday.

Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, said, “Indeed, immigration is the issue of the day. But I think it is important to discuss what we are doing to help newcomers assimilate into America. We are receiving a record number of immigrants every year. We need a complete solution.”

Aguilar was joined by Jenny Verdaguer, director of the Bachelor of Individualized Studies Program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; and Patricia Donnelly, executive director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which co-sponsored the panel discussion.

Aguilar said the media tends to focus on undocumented or illegal immigrants. But he pointed out that immigrants greatly assist the American economy. Aguilar said there are not only many jobs Americans will not do, but also regions in the country where there are not enough natives to meet the demand.

“This is a mainstream issue,” said Aguilar, who was born in Puerto Rico to an Italian mother and Costa Rican father. In light of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said “it is not an easy balance” between border security and allowing immigrants into the United States.

Verdaguer came to the United States from Argentina 20 years ago through a college fellowship program at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She said she was aided by a middle-class upbringing and a strong command of the English language. “I am a successful immigrant. Not all of my fellow immigrants are as fortunate,” she said.

Learning English is a key to adapting to American culture, Verdaguer agreed. But she said other factors, such as U.S. immigration policy and labor inducements, are as important. She said both lower- and higher-skilled immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy, from construction jobs to the technology sector.

She also said providing language training for newcomers with limited English proficiency is necessary but integration efforts should include integration of cultural and language sensitivity to social service delivery; providing workforce support; building bridges to connect immigrants to mainstream institutions; and providing the undocumented with an earned pathway toward legalization to prevent creating an isolated underclass.

Donnelly said her agency, the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, worked with immigrants from 60 countries last year. Students learning English as a Second Language range in age from 18 to 92, and many juggle two jobs while trying to find time and money to attend English classes. “Adult literacy is a huge challenge facing Northern Virginia.”

Among the states, Virginia has the 11th-largest foreign-born population, and 68 percent of that population lives in Northern Virginia. The Literacy Council is struggling to meet needs because of budget constraints: of a $722,000 budget, about $650,000 will have to be raised from funds not provided by the Virginia Department of Education.

Aguilar said he would like to use churches and other voluntary agencies to provide literacy training at no cost, and volunteers would be trained by organizations such as the Literacy Council. But Donnelly noted that her nonprofit has a moratorium on expansion and cannot accept new students. Aguilar’s office is not providing new funds to help improve literacy, she said.

Mason law student Matthew Hodgson attended the event and commented, “I know this is going to be a big issue in the (national) elections in the next couple of years.” He said he is interested to see how Aguilar’s three pillars – language, civic duty and a shared history – will be implemented on a national level.

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