Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Age of Immigration

On the front page of today's Chicago Tribune is an article about the New Americans Initiative in Illinois, an effort to A) assist immigrants in Illinois become U.S. citizens; B) encourage immigrants to independently initiate their naturalization process; and C) help new citizens participate fully in civic life in Illinois. According to the article, this initiative is part of "a quiet but mounting government push to encourage assimilation, the likes of which have not occurred since Theodore Roosevelt's Americanization programs of the early 20th century."

This focus on immigration and assimilation--which has been a part of mainstream news coverage all year--is consistent with the theme of cultural diversity that is embedded in the young adult literature that I am reading for this project. After the theme of fear and terrorism, this is the most pronounced theme; one finds it in books such as American Born Chinese, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, An Abundance of Katherines, Color of the Sea, and even Water for Elephants. These novels show the challenges that immigrants and their children face in the United States, and also the efforts of many in our country to make our nation a more welcoming home for new arrivals.

The article in the Tribune caught my eye because it calls attention to both efforts to provide greater opportunities and assistance to new immigrants and the recurring hurdles and challenges that immigrants face in many Illinois communities, including Carpentersville and Waukegan. Interestingly, the high school classroom that I observed about a year ago that catalyzed this project is located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, near Carpentersville. The older adolescents that I observed discussing various descriptors for the current age did not mention "immigration" as a possibility, despite the growing influx of new Americans to this area, and also the controversy in nearby communities about how to respond to this phenomenon. This goes to show that reading young adult literature to understand trends and issues in the contemporary world can be a useful alternative to relying soley on one's own experiences and perceptions.

It also suggests that creating a more hospitable environment for new arrivals to the United States is not going to be easily accomplished. According to the Tribune, the focus of government efforts is on providing information as opposed to more substantive efforts to increase dialogue and understanding. In addition, funds for even the most elemental of integration services were cut from the most recent state budget. For many Americans, immigration and issues of cultural diversity remain below the radar, despite the clear evidence that to survive in the current age we must become more attuned to the variety of people in the world and more focused in our efforts to create dialogue and understanding across cultures. One of the best ways to create dialogue and understanding is reading young adult literature--an activity that appears to be taking place outside of school to a greater degree than at any other point in American history, but yet remains a relatively uncommon occurence in school. Since the likelihood of the government stepping up to fund new initiatives in the reading of young adult literature is pretty slim, maybe teachers need to become more forceful in their advocacy of this creative approach to social justice?

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