WASHINGTON— At a soccer game against Mexico in February, the American national team listened in frustration as a chorus of boos erupted during ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' Thousands of fans threw cups and bottles at the United States players, often striking them. They also attacked someone in the stands who tried to unfurl an American flag.
The match didn't take place in Mexico City but in Los Angeles. Most of the fans were Mexican or Mexican-American. The extreme reactions to their behavior were disheartening but predictable. On one side, the columnist Pat Buchanan declared that ''the Melting Pot is freezing over.'' On the other, a Los Angeles Times editorialist said that critics of the fans were ''xenophobic, nativist, protectionist and isolationist.''
The United States is in the midst of an assimilation crisis -- one inspired not by immigrants but by an American intelligentsia that has abandoned the struggle to help newcomers assimilate. Neither left nor right knows how to respond to a troubling incident like the Los Angeles soccer match.
On the right, nativists argue that immigrants are not capable of becoming American. ''Immigration is a failure because assimilation, contrary to national myth, never really occurred,'' Chilton Williamson wrote recently in the magazine Chronicles. Mr. Williamson, an editor and writer for the conservative monthly, claims that the Ellis Island generation of immigrants never actually became American.
On the left, multiculturalists say that immigrants should not have to become American. As Juan Perea, a law professor at the University of Florida, says, ''Americanization must either be completely reworked or abandoned as a premise of American identity.'' For many in the academic world, assimilation is nothing but a gentrified form of ethnic cleansing.
Both sides have unfortunately ceded a sensible middle ground that supports some level of immigration but also insists on assimilation. As a result, many native-born Americans are confused about what, if anything, they should ask of immigrants.
The Americanization movement of the early 20th century provides an effective blueprint for how the United States should greet today's immigrants. The original Americanizers believed that newcomers and natives would have to reach an accord. Immigrants needed to become part of American society, rather than mere sojourners in it. They had responsibilities to their new home, like learning English, living by its laws and earning citizenship. Ultimately, they were to dedicate themselves to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that define American nationhood.
Natives had to keep their end of the bargain. ''From the moment [the immigrant] arrives in America, he needs the creative, aggressive attention of American institutions,'' wrote Frances Kellor, a leading Americanizer, in 1916. She and others set up classes and lectures and wrote publications on the English language, American history and naturalization. They used various private and public institutions, including corporations, schools and government offices, as engines of assimilation. They gave speeches and held parades.
Many immigrants encountered severe discrimination, and in the 1920's nativist groups like the Ku Klux Klan helped pass restrictive legislation that slowed immigration to a trickle. For two decades before that, however, the original Americanizers strove for the immigrant's full acceptance in and of American society.
Today, Americans no longer know how to pass on the ideals that bind us together. A mishmash of public policies actively inhibit the Americanization of immigrants. Public schools engage in the charade of bilingual education, which rarely teaches children to speak, read and write in English as well as they could. Often it leaves them illiterate in two languages and fluent in none. That failure is the reason that so many Hispanic and Asian parents in California support Proposition 227, a state initiative that would get rid of bilingual education and replace it with English-language immersion classes.
Government racial-preference policies treat people as members of groups rather than as individuals, classifying them by the color of their skin. The overburdened Immigration and Naturalization Service flirts with the idea of eliminating the mandatory test on American history and government for new citizens -- a change that threatens to lower the standards of naturalization so far that the only requirement for full citizenship could consist of filling out an application form, as if becoming an American were on a par with getting a driver's license. The State Department looks the other way as more countries encourage dual loyalties by enacting dual-citizenship laws that extend political privileges, including the vote, to select American citizens.
In a remarkably short period, the United States has forgotten what to ask of its newcomers. We must rediscover the lost idea of Americanization. Whether we welcome few immigrants or many, we should give every stranger a chance and a reason to become a patriotic American.
Drawing (Lars Leetaru)
U.S. soccer team booed in their own country as Mexican fans turn LA into an 'away' game