Preparing New Citizens

How would average Americans fare in a Shiite village in southern Iraq, or in one of Mogadishu's clan-dominated neighborhoods? They'll probably never have to find out. But thousands of new arrivals from Iraq, Somalia, and other lands regularly face the jarring experience of fitting into American society.

Recent news accounts document the sad stories of immigrants whose traditions are severely at odds with American norms - or, worse, laws. Some of the most extreme cases involve refugees granted asylum in the United States, such as an Iraqi family in Nebraska that arranged marriages for their underage daughters and ran afoul of child-abuse statutes.

The father was simply doing what fathers from his southern Iraq homeland have always done. He and his prospective sons-in-law had no idea they were violating American law - to say nothing of broad social and cultural norms concerning the rights of children and women.

This case and others raise disturbing questions about how well the country is assimilating its remarkably diverse wave of new citizens. Certainly, if people are welcomed in because they faced persecution in their homelands - the prerequisite for asylum - humanitarian concerns dictate a careful introduction to life in a society that may seem an alien planet to them. The State Department, which decides on asylum, should make sure these people become aware of the cultural conflicts awaiting them.

If refugees are coming in at a faster rate than they can be educated in these matters, more resources should be given to the task - or the system should be reexamined.

Is everyone now being admitted in this category truly a refugee? There's little doubt about Shiites from southern Iraq, whose brief rebellion was applauded by Washington before being crushed by Baghdad. What about current "refugees" from Russia? Do they really fit the "persecuted" category?

Refugees are only part of this issue. New citizens are being naturalized at unprecedented rates - spurred on by a number of factors, from economic pressures overseas to the imminent cutoff of federal welfare benefits to noncitizens. The volume of people, plus bureaucratic efforts to streamline the system, mean that many new citizens don't get even a credible crash course in the duties of citizenship.

And the inflow of new citizens is happening even as serious questions are raised about how effectively native-born Americans are teaching their children the basics of citizenship. The rituals that instill at least a sense of citizenship - from high school civics courses to the Pledge of Allegiance - are weakening.

But a common understanding of what it means to be a citizen has never been more important, as America and the world surrounding it become ever more intertwined.

For a refugee from southern Iraq, that understanding has to include some sense of how traditions might have to give way before established US law. For Americans whose families go back generations here, it might include a new appreciation for tolerance as a democratic value.

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