The 56 Million

Fifty-six million residents of the US are either foreign-born or born to parents who came from abroad, according to a new study by the Census Bureau. That's the largest such number in United States history.

It also accounts for one-fifth of the population. Can the US absorb them all?

The bulk of new arrivals take low-wage jobs. That's true of Mexicans, who are nearly 25 percent of the foreign-born. Asian newcomers generally earn more than native-born Americans. But beyond economic effects - or the political ones about how newer Americans will vote - lie fundamental concerns about US civic life. For instance:

• Can government institutions, especially schools, deal with this increasing diversity? Today's immigrants are heavily concentrated in large cities - Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York, to name some of the biggest ones. Schools in those cities need long-term support to prepare immigrant children to enter mainstream economic life and not remain in low-wage ethnic enclaves. Effective instruction in English is crucial.

• Does US society still have the ability to get diverse people to work together? Past waves of immigrants have integrated into the country's civic traditions. But for millions of current immigrants, the homeland - Mexico and Central America - is right next door. That, plus large Spanish-speaking communities in the US, can weaken the inclination to learn English. The US must do what it can - through education and training - to make sure the children of the foreign- born have the choice to break out of their ethnic and linguistic pockets.

• Is the preparation for citizenship adequate? This is partly a matter of better civics teaching in schools. But it's also a matter of strengthening the official process of making them citizens. New citizens need more than a passing knowledge of a few historical figures and facts. The basics of democratic participation should be taught.

• New citizens should also have a primary allegiance to the US. Dual citizenship is spreading, with at least 93 countries now recognizing it, including many that send large numbers of immigrants here. While naturalized citizens formally renounce other citizenship, their countries of origin often still claim them as citizens. The US government does little to discourage multiple citizenship.

Ties to a homeland are natural. They can enrich the culture of the new land. But divided loyalties can be a problem in politics and national security, as when ethnic lobbies try to influence US foreign policy against the larger interest of all Americans.

The US tradition of embracing immigrants and new citizens remains strong. But so is the expectation of a warm embrace in return.

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