Los Angeles Times

Sunday, June 14, 1998

Clinton Hails Benefits of Immigration to America
Culture: President backs high levels of legal migration to U.S. while saying it's the duty of new arrivals to learn English. He concedes influx can test national cohesion.
By DOYLE MCMANUS, Times Washington Bureau Chief

PORTLAND, Ore.--President Clinton made a strong statement in favor of continued high levels of immigration Saturday, saying it is Americans' duty to welcome new citizens from abroad--and immigrants' duty to learn English and "embrace our culture."
      "I believe new immigrants are good for America," Clinton said in a commencement speech at Portland State University. "They are revitalizing our cities. They are building our new economy. . . . They are energizing our culture and broadening our vision of the world. They are renewing our most basic values."
      In unusually blunt language on an emotion-charged issue, the president said he understood why many Americans feel threatened by burgeoning immigration, most of it coming from Asia and Latin America. "They are afraid the America they know and love is becoming a foreign land," he said.
      And he conceded that record-high levels of immigration could threaten the nation's cohesion. But he asked native-born Americans to extend more tolerance to newcomers and, in return, for immigrants to abandon foreign ways.
      Clinton, who headlined a Democratic Party fund-raiser Saturday night in Los Angeles, did not directly mention California's recently approved Proposition 227, but he clearly had it in mind as he called for greater efforts to teach English to immigrant children.
      The initiative, passed in the primary election earlier this month, outlawed most bilingual education in the state and mandated, instead, a one-year English immersion program to teach young immigrants the language. A lawsuit has been filed to block the measure's provisions from taking effect in the fall.
      "It is important for children to retain their native language, but unless they also learn English, they will never reach their full potential in the United States," he said. He called on Americans to "do whatever it takes . . . to make sure [immigrants] learn as quickly as they can the language that will be the dominant language of this country's commerce and citizenship in the future."
      But Clinton also touched on the difficulties of achieving that goal. "Now, it's all very well for someone to say, every one of [non-English-speaking immigrants] should learn English immediately," he said. "But we don't, at this time, necessarily have people who are trained to teach them English in all those languages" spoken by various immigrants, he said.
      Clinton opposed Proposition 227, but he acknowledged that bilingual education programs had deep flaws; he called for a compromise that would allow bilingual education but limit it to three years.
      Aides said Clinton's speech, the third in a series of addresses on major national issues he has made at commencements, was not prompted by Proposition 227 but was the product of months of discussion.
      In its broad sweep, the speech was the most complete exposition of his views on immigration during his presidency and elaborated two themes he has struck before: Americans should welcome immigrants--"give them their chance at the brass ring," as he put it Saturday--but immigrants must work to integrate themselves into the larger American culture.
      Addressing the newcomers, he said, " . . . you must honor laws. Embrace our culture. Learn our language. Know our history. And when the time comes, you should become citizens."
      With legal immigration to the country approaching 1 million a year, Clinton noted that the current wave is "larger than any in a century, far more diverse than any in our history" and has had particular impact on California.
      Within five years, there will be no majority race in our largest state, California," he said. "In a little more than 50 years, there will be no majority race in the United States."
      He added: "No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude over so short a time. What do the changes mean? They can either strengthen and unite us, or weaken and divide us. We must decide."
      Responding to the president's remarks, a leading critic of liberal immigration policies accused Clinton of ignoring the "massive societal changes" brought about by droves of immigrants.
      "Rather than revitalize the cities, immigrants have driven Americans out of the cities," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. "Native-born Americans are fleeing cities like Los Angeles because of the impact of excessively high levels of immigration."
      Stein's group favors a limit of 200,000 newcomers per year, but he said there is little chance of lawmakers backing that goal anytime soon.
      Indeed, on Capitol Hill, the focus has been on stemming the flow of illegal immigrants--who number an estimated 5 million--while welcoming those entering the country legally. Republican leaders have endorsed a steady flow of legal immigrants as good for business. Most Democrats, meanwhile, support the flow of new immigrants to join their extended families here as a civil rights issue.       Clinton, in his speech, noted that he was supporting legal immigration, not illegal immigration.
      "It's wrong to condone illegal immigration that flouts our laws, strains our tolerance, taxes our resources." But Clinton also condemned "ballot propositions to exclude immigrants from our civic life," an apparent reference to California's Proposition 187, which passed in 1994 and prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving an array of public services.
      He condemned "identity politics," the increasing division of American society into interest groups defined by ethnicity and sex.
      "Not just immigrants, but every American--on our campuses and in our communities--should reject identity politics that seeks to separate us, not bring us together," he said. "Ethnic pride is a very good thing . . . but pride in one's ethnic or racial heritage must never become an excuse to withdraw from the larger American community. That does not honor diversity; it breeds divisiveness."
      While calling on Americans to "treat new immigrants as we would have wanted our own grandparents to be treated," he also cautioned that "unless we handle this well, immigration of this sweep and scope could threaten the bonds of our union. Around the world, we see what can happen when people who live on the same land put race and ethnicity before country and humanity."
Times staff writer David G. Savage contributed to this story from Washington.