Discussions over immigration often lead to the topic of integration and assimilation. A common misconception is the belief that immigrants “refuse to assimilate,” often fueled by anecdotal evidence of immigrants speaking foreign languages in public or frustration with an immigrant’s accent when speaking English. Nonetheless, numerous studies have found that the vast majority of immigrants do, in fact, take affirmative steps in learning English and integrating into American society.1 A recent article by the Washington Post examines how companies are creating programs to help these “new Americans” become better employees and citizens.
Marriott International, has [an] ambitious motive for offering thousands of foreign-born housekeepers, cooks and maintenance workers its no-cost “Thirst for Knowledge” program, which simulates [English] conversations in banks, hospitals, shops and schools as well as in hotel kitchens and lobbies.
Marriott and another Bethesda-based company, Miller & Long Concrete Construction, are among several dozen major U.S. corporations spearheading a campaign to turn the divisive national debate about immigration in a more positive direction.
“This is a mission for us,” said Andy Chaves, a human resources manager for Marriott and a member of the White House Task Force on New Americans. “When our employees become proficient in English and assimilate into our society, it benefits the company, the community and the individual. Everyone gains.”2
Their efforts are being buoyed by a recent bill introduced in Congress by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and three representatives from California, Florida and Texas. The “Strengthening Communities through Education and Integration Act” would increase funding for family literacy programs, tax credits for teachers of English learners, and corporate tax breaks for companies that offer educational programs to their employees in the workplace.3 A report released by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas on the economic contributions of immigrant workers listed some the programs offered these companies.
The report lists corporations that have offered their large immigrant workforces a variety of skill-building programs. These include scholarships at Wal-Mart, English classes at United Parcel Service, financial literacy programs at Western Union and bilingual skills development at Northrop Grumman shipbuilders.4
The Post reports, however, that such positive and beneficial programs have experienced challenges in the face of growing anti-immigrant sentiment:
Some companies that employ immigrants have been reluctant to associate themselves with the effort, however, citing fears of public criticism and government scrutiny amid increasingly aggressive federal efforts to track down illegal immigrants and punish their employers.
“Businesses feel cowed by the rhetoric,” said Christopher Sabatini, a policy director at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “There is a fear of being labeled as aiding and abetting undocumented immigrants.” He said some companies have curtailed programs aimed at helping immigrant workers because of community disapproval.5
Despite the anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, business coalitions, labor unions, civil rights groups, and faith organizations have endorsed the Honda-Clinton integration bill as a practical and positive initiative to help immigrants learn English.