We are a nation of immigrants who don’t like immigrants

Germans-emigrate-1874Immigration is a hot topic today. The blending with racism and nationalism is hard for me to ignore, and it’s interesting to watch the rationalization that people use to avoid confronting their own racist views and implicit xenophobia. This kind of thing takes several forms, each revealing. On the whole, I’m pleased that people struggle to rationalize this, because it shows me that they see racism/xenophobia as a bad thing, and don’t want to think of themselves that way. I wrote about this earlier; the relevant quote was “I know that most people don’t want to be racist. I know that most people get angry when somebody calls them a racist. That’s good. It tells me that they and I share the belief that racism is bad. That makes me happy, and I’m glad we agree that being a racist is not a good thing to be.” But that doesn’t make it go away. We need more. We need to see it out in the open, so we can end it in ourselves if we truly do not want to be racist. Immigration and our views on this is a good place for this exercise, so let’s spend some time looking at a couple of issues, and what people have said about immigration policy that may reveal some not-so-kind, but correctable, views.

I support legal, but not illegal immigrants. This is something I hear often. Of course few of us support breaking laws, except maybe out of protest, to make a point, and with willingness to face the consequences. I’m not sure this always reveals racism, but it does seem to be a fine line.

My immigrant parents/grandparents/great grandparents came here and assimilated, why can’t today’s immigrants do the same? I’m going to break this down into a few sub-categories and take on one at a time, but the theme is all under the same umbrella, with a core value judgement that is rooted in the idea that there is some fabric of America that’s the “real” America and that shouldn’t be spoiled by outsiders.

Language. This is a discussion that often focuses on language. The claim is that we didn’t have English as a second language schools or classes back in the day. Italian or Polish or Russian or French ancestors were different (better) because “back in the day” they came here and learned the language, instead of forcing schools to teach in their language, or making us press 1 for English. First of all, I’m not even sure the language assimilation myth is true. How many families of immigrants had first generations of Americans who spoke only their native language, at least at home, and broken English, at best, outside? The children grew up bilingual, or at least able to know what their parents were saying in Italian or German or Polish when they were yelling at them, but it was the children of the immigrants, not the first generation immigrants who really did well with the language. Moreover, many of those first generation immigrants had a hard time getting good jobs, making a decent living, supporting their families, and it seems likely that a language barrier was responsible for that. From where I sit, it says a lot about how we’ve grown as a nation that we make efforts to make things accessible to those who might start off a bit behind. We do this with wheelchair ramps, with hearing aids, with all kinds of things. Why shouldn’t we do this with language also? Should an inability to communicate be the blockade preventing the ability to contribute?

That doesn’t even address the real core problem with the argument. The reality is that the United States of America does not have an official language, and the most commonly spoken language is the language of immigrants. It’s not “American.” It’s “English,” from England. The language itself is imported, but somehow that kind of import is morally superior to importing Chinese or Spanish or Polish or Russian, even though importing English used biological warfare to make sure it stuck.

Culture. I used to listen to folks like Glenn Beck whip up fear that Muslim and Hispanic immigrants were going to tear apart the culture of America. But this notion of an “American” culture, ignores that our culture has arisen from a blending of various other cultures. Our food, music, philosophy, art are all blends of cultures. African influences gave rise to blues, gospel, and jazz. Italian influences gave us musical styles of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. These things feel American to us, but that’s only because they took over and became part of our fabric, not because they were birthed out of America. These are foreign influences.

Food is an obvious example. Sure, things like tater tots and Twinkies were born in the United States, but most of our food choices are immigrated from other countries. Do any of us suffer because of readily available Chinese food? Because we can get sushi in all major cities and most smaller ones too? Are we watching our culture die because we can get an “Italian B.M.T.” at subway or because Italians brought us pizza? Credit for the first pizza in the United States is generally given to Gennaro Lombardi, who sold pizza in New York City to give Italian immigrants a taste of home. Pizza itself was a lack of assimilation that folks often say was the hallmark of the “right way” to immigrate.

Crime. Here’s one that’s touchy, and is deeply-seated in stereotypes. The president frequently talks about gangs like MS-13 as evidence that we need to strengthen our borders with Mexico to prevent criminal activity. This kind of talk either purposefully or accidentally taints the view of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The gang-related crimes committed by a minority of latino immigrants becomes an identifying factor of all of them. Thinking about other cultures, the existence of this kind of crime is not unique, but only leads to stereotypes in two instances (as best as I can tell): Latinos and Italians. Italian immigration is closely associated in perception with organized crime, and people I know (including my wife) have lived with repeated jokes about their connections with the mob because of an Italian last name. I’m not sure why, maybe because of movies like the Godfather that created a hero out of the fictional Don Corleone who was based on real-life Italian immigrants. Interestingly, it’s unlikely that people would quickly associate organized crime with Irish immigrants, even though the Irish Mob is considered the oldest organized crime group in America. Likewise, organized crime isn’t likely the first thing that comes to mind when people think about Jewish immigrants, even though many have heard of Murder Incorporated, an organized crime group originally led by an American Jew named Louis Buchalter.

When I think of these things, and I control for the similarities and differences, I’m left with this view that whatever people grew up with is considered their normal. If you grew up in a time when there weren’t any Chinese restaurants, an America without Chinese food feels “American,” and the proliferation of Chinese food feels like a loss of that “American” fabric. For some, we embrace this and order some General Tso Chicken, for others we fear the change and see it as a loss of what once felt normal. But this fails to recognize that just before our time, there were things that didn’t exist, and the introduction of them might have made others feel afraid and uneasy, like their normal was shifting. Things that we embrace as part of “America” and as important parts of our lives. So in the end, I look at how we accept pasta and pizza and General Tso chicken as part of our culture, and we see no problem with our immigrant English language being “American,” and we enjoy the music and art that was born from immigrant ideas, it pains me that we now talk about new immigrants as ruining the fabric of America, not helping to create it like all of those other immigrated things did. But the pain is constrained by my hope that years from now we’ll look back at today as a time of misunderstanding and fear. Much like the days when prejudice and fear kept blacks from using the same bathroom, kept Irish from applying for jobs, kept Italians from being treated fairly, and I hope we will look back at people like Trump and Beck as today’s versions of James Henry Hammond, and our grandchildren will ask how it was possible for us to think that people should be so unfairly treated because of where they or their parents were born, or because of the color of their skin or accent of their speech. And we will tell them that we too find it amazing, but we’re happy that we don’t think that way any more. I hope, I hope, I hope.

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