Archive for Sunday, April 2, 2006

Unrest brings debate about Americanism

April 2, 2006


— Both sides in the emotional debate over immigration agree on at least one thing: This is a fight over what it means to be an American.

The passions that are being unleashed in street protests, on talk radio and in Congress are as old as the American dream. We may be a nation of immigrants, but we sometimes recoil from foreigners with different languages, religions, cultures and complexions.

Even Benjamin Franklin, one of the most open-minded founding fathers, objected to foreign newcomers - in his case, from Germany.

"Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them," he asked in a 1751 essay.

More than 170 years later, President Calvin Coolidge put it more succinctly: "America must be kept American."

Yet even ardent advocates of tighter immigration controls acknowledge the contributions that immigrants have made, and continue to make, to the most diverse society on Earth. Polls show deeply conflicting views about immigration. Americans are just as likely to think that immigrants strengthen the country as they are to consider them a burden.

"People are seeing immigration as a negative. That's a shame, because if it's done right, it's a positive," said Ron Woodard, the director of NC Listen, a North Carolina group that favors tougher immigration policies. "Americans believe in reasonable legal immigration, but they have major heartburn with people breaking the law."

New twists

Although the current debate over immigration is in many ways a replay of past battles, there are some new twists.

Marchers join in a "Si, Se Puede" parade and rally in Wichita on Saturday in honor of the late Cesar Chavez, a labor leader and civil rights activist.

Marchers join in a "Si, Se Puede" parade and rally in Wichita on Saturday in honor of the late Cesar Chavez, a labor leader and civil rights activist.

The terrorist attacks in 2001 have heightened concerns about border security. Globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs have increased economic anxieties. Multiculturalism and the emphasis on tolerance for alternative lifestyles have helped fuel doubts about the durability of what are considered traditional American values.

To be sure, America has dealt successfully with large-scale immigration before. The nation's doors were wide open to many immigrants during the 1800s. By the turn of the century, roughly 15 percent of the nation's residents were foreign-born. Today, the 33 million foreign-born residents account for about 11 percent of the population.

Yet previous waves of immigration led to nativist movements and crackdowns. Irish Roman Catholics faced scorn and abuse in the mid-19th century, and Congress prohibited immigration from China in 1882. The surge at the turn of the 20th century, and fears about radicals and anarchists, led to the first broad clampdown on immigration.

"Just like in the early 1900s, people are realizing today that things have gotten out of hand," said Woodard of NC Listen. "We need to bring it back in balance."

Widespread impact

More and more Americans are feeling the impact of immigration, even in communities that traditionally had few foreign-born residents.

In 1990, fewer than 4 percent of people in Charlotte, N.C., came from other countries. Now, 11 percent are foreign-born. The population shift coincided with the decline of North Carolina's textile and furniture industries.

"It's bad enough that your job went to Mexico. Now you've got illegal Mexicans coming into the state, and you have to compete with them. It's a double whammy," Woodard said. "People are saying, 'Enough is enough."'

The influx of Hispanic foreigners - more than half of foreign-born residents are from Latin America - is contributing to another demographic shift. Minorities, both citizens and noncitizens, are now the majority in Miami, Los Angeles, Houston and San Francisco. New York and Washington will join the list soon.

Most advocates of tighter immigration controls say their concerns don't have anything to do with race or ethnicity. They say they worry about the nation's ability to absorb the latest wave of foreigners.

"It's not 1910 anymore. We have an economy that doesn't offer the same kind of upward mobility for people with low education," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "We've changed, not the immigrants."

Krikorian, whose grandparents came from Armenia, said he also worried that cultural changes had made it harder for immigrants to absorb American values. He pointed to demonstrators waving Mexican flags at recent pro-immigration rallies as evidence of the decreased emphasis on assimilation.

"My Mom had to memorize the Gettysburg Address. What are the kids in the Unified Los Angeles School District learning? They sure as heck aren't being Americanized," he said. "Is the nation going to continue in its current form or not? It's all a question of who we are."

O'Donnell, the immigration historian, sees the current debate as the latest chapter in the American story.

"It is probably our greatest national legacy, accepting the huddled masses, but it doesn't come without risks and challenges and problems," he said. "It's the price that you pay for being a diverse society. We're never going to stop debating immigration."


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