Recently Marc Fischer wrote about the immigration issues facing Northern Virginia and the recent Prince William County legislation dealing with illegal aliens. After considering the matter generally, Fischer writes:
Haven’t we been here before? Isn’t this backlash against illegal immigrants merely a repeat of the bouts of nativism that have accompanied each wave of immigration throughout our nation’s history?
John Stirrup, PW Supervisor and sponsor of the PW illegal alien legislation, thinks times are different:
“In previous waves of immigration, you had a vast majority of the immigrants who wanted to assimilate and embrace the American dream,” he says. “These individuals have no desire to embrace American culture. Their motivation is a purely economic one — to make money and ship it home.”
Fischer then concludes:
I thought back on my grandmother’s stories of hoarding the dollars she earned in a hat factory in New York’s Lower East Side and sending what she could back to her family in her native Russia. Yet sending money back in no way diminished her determination to be a hard-core, flag-waving U.S. citizen who embraced the United States, right down to watching Lawrence Welk on TV every Saturday night.
What is different about the recent spurt in immigration is that our country has changed: Jobs and cheaper housing are no longer in city neighborhoods where immigrants live in isolated ghettos. Instead, immigrants — legal or not — live smack dab in the middle of the rest of us. That confronts us with the culture clash that has always been part of the glorious process of becoming American.
As it turns out, it seems both have it partially right…but both are missing a critical element.
While the Statue of Liberty invites the world’s “huddled masses, yearning to breath free”, those masses were seeking varying kinds of freedom. Some sought religous freedom, some political freedom, some economic freedom. However, once they came to this country they were committed to staying, and saw as their best chance of success becoming americanized. This was the day of the melting pot, where all sought to immerse themselves in their new country while keeping aspects of their home country in their private and social lives. It did not matter if you came from Europe or Asia, it was not likely you were going home.
Of course, there were no English as second language classes, no alternative governmental forms, no social net to catch folks. One’s success was founded in great part on how well one could assimilate. Today we have these various government programs, and there seems to be no real desire on many of the most recent waves to assimilate.
In his book on Rudy Giuliani, Fred Siegel suggests that a difference between David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani is that Dinkins saw NYC as a “mosaic” of vibrant immigrant communites that maintained their homeland feel, while Giuliani believed in the “melting pot” where everyone americanized while maintaining in their social fabric that connection with their native countries.
Yeah, that could have been more gracefully phrased but I don’t have the book with me.
Mr. Stirrup is somewhat wrong-immigrants have been wanting to improve their financial lot since forever. Example 1-the Jamestown Colony.
Mr. Fischer is somewhat wrong-the assimilation he speaks of in his grandparents does not seem to be as readily apparent to me. I don’t see Mr. Fischer telling stories of how his grandmother attempted to immigrate illegally and how she attempted to avoid paying taxes while availing herself of government resources.
I don’t know why the focus has changed…but I think the first question really has to be what the nature of this country is to be. The United States was built by immigrant seeking a better life, but these immigrants came here with a willingness to to stay and build. They wanted to participate, they wanted to vote, they wanted to have their piece of the rock…and I suggest this is true across history, regardless of what nativism they enountered on their arrival.
Today, there seems to be a desire to have the benefits of being a citizen without the responsibilities of being a citizen. On result of this is seen in an increased economic burden across a variety of governmental units, another is in the violation of zoning codes with the attendant impact on neighborhood quality of life. Sometimes it seems that the problems are matters of clashing cultures, sometimes it is willful disobedience of the laws…and if there need to be additional ordinances put in place to make sure the letter and the spirit of the law is enforced, I have no problem with that. Breaking the law is breaking the law. In that same vein, opposition to illegal immigration is not zenophobic, it is simply a desire that laws be followed and not flouted.
That, Mr. Fischer, is where things are different than in your grandmothers Lower East Side.
Ultimately, the real question is one that goes to a philosophical question, and once we find an answer to that perhaps we can move ahead to answer broader questions: Is this country to be a mosaic or a melting pot? The former concept celebrates that which is different between us, while the latter celebrates that which we all share.
Myself, I vote for the melting pot…however, until we reach consensus on that fundamental question, I think we are going to have troubles reaching consensus on a much wider range of immigration policy issues.