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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

In Praise Of Immigration–Let Them Come!

As a young boy, my two best friends were Jewish and Protestant.  Herbie, the Protestant, was of Swedish origin, and Bruce was a Jew.  No one in those days cared where a Jew came from.  Whether it was a shtetl in Russia, a small town in Poland, or more rarely from Spain or Germany, a Jew was a Jew.  But for the rest of the immigrant mix in New Brighton, Connecticut, ‘nationality’ mattered.  We all knew who was a Polack, Mick, Guinea, or Hunky (Puerto Ricans and Dominicans had not yet stormed the shores of the Connecticut River).  Despite the attempts of every family, regardless of heritage, to expunge every last trace of the Old Country, the ethnic epithets held.  Assimilation would take another generation. 

My mother gave in to my father only once a year – on Christmas Eve – and cooked up a garlicky, fiery hot meal of squid and eel.  The fragrance, or the smell as my mother called it, remained in the far corners of our formerly odor-free house for days.  Until the guinea-garlic traces were fully gone, none of us were allowed to invite our friends.  Our house was very unlike my grandmother’s apartment in Wooster Square, the Italian ghetto of the early- and mid-Twentieth Century New Haven.  You could smell the garlic before you set foot in the building.  Every apartment I passed on the way up the creaky, wooden stairs smelled of garlic.  My mother never came on these obligatory Sunday outings.  She did not need to be reminded so brutally of my father’s family.

Polish, Irish, and Slovak households were no different.  First generation families wanting desperately to fit in kept the Catholic kitsch in check, boiled up the cabbage and kielbasa on Monday mornings when no one but the mailman or milkman would knock on the door, and kept their going-out clothes sealed in plastic garment bags so when they went out they would not trail any tell-tale signs that screamed ‘Immigrant!”.

Every family knew the nationality of every other.  It took some doing for Italians to sort out Bohunks from Hunkies, but we were pretty well-schooled at spotting Irish and Jews.  I wouldn’t say that any of us were prejudiced – the mixing among the ethnic groups was easy and unforced.  We all went to public elementary school, and although my school was in the catchment area of the WASP West End, it pulled in the children of factory workers, painters, and plumbers.  Everyone was working hard to assimilate.  There was no question of retaining or ‘celebrating’ ethnicity.  It was to be forgotten, submerged, expunged, and removed.

This ethnic cleansing rarely ever worked.  Our West End house (we lived among WASPs ,which made my mother’s job even harder) had a parlor as formal, ornate, and imposing as any in Wooster Square, just without the doilies, antimacassars, crucifixes, and statues of Jesus and Mary.  My father kept up the very Italian ‘bella figura’ – always looking good (think Silvio Berlusconi) – and wore the elegant silk ties, starched shirts, tailored suits and Italian shoes which distinguished him from our rumpled WASP neighbors, thus hurting our assimilation chances, but making us look good with the Polish factory workers.

The Promised Land, an autobiography and paean to America written by the Russian-Jewish immigrant Mary Antin in 1912, has recently been reissued; and in a review in The New Republic Jenna Weissman Joselit writes:

A native of Polotzk, a city in the Russian Pale of Settlement to which the Jews had been consigned ever since the late eighteenth century, Mary Antin told Americans what they wanted to hear about assimilation in America. In exuberant prose that jumped off the page, she offered herself up as an example of the immigrant’s plasticity and capacity for transformation. As The New York Times sympathetically observed in the wake of the book’s publication, “We may understand, as we have never been able to understand before, why the journey from Russia to America is like the Exodus of old and why this country of ours, with all its poverty, with all its slums, with all its industrial problems, and its ‘armies of the unemployed,’ is still the land of promise.”

Nineteen-twelve was a year of suspicion if not hostility to immigrants who had come to America in the tens of thousands since 1880.  In the forty years or so since the first waves hit our shores, immigrants had not assimilated, were living in ghettoes, and represented a threat to the old, established ‘American Way of Life’; and therefore the book by Antin was received enthusiastically.  If Antin could strive for assimilation, accept and adopt American habits and mores without question,then maybe there was hope.

Reassuring and comforting, The Promised Land took off like a shot, selling thousands of copies. Here was the tale of an immigrant who not only mastered English but also made it her own. More importantly, it was the story of an immigrant who was quick to jettison her distinctive, age-old traditions in favor of an American sensibility.

Of course there were detractors from WASP America who would always resent the defilement of their land by smelly foreigners:

From time to time, disgruntled voices questioned Antin’s right to lay claim to America. The well-born Barrett Wendell, a professor of English and American literature at Harvard, was among them. Antin “has developed an irritating habit of describing herself and her people as Americans, in distinction from such folks as Edith ([his wife] and me, who have been here for three hundred years,” he harrumphed in 1917 in a letter to a friend, as her fame continued to mount.

These retrograde comments were few and far between, however, as this song to the uniquely American experience resonated throughout the country.  It certainly made sense to my parents and to me.

This lionization of the assimilated immigrant eroded quickly after 1960 when the roots of multi-culturalism, diversity, and an overweening respect for ethnicity and racial and ethnic identity were sunk.  Assimilation was a bad idea, said the Sixties Radicals, because it was a capitulation to the greedy capitalist oligarchies who ran the country, who wanted everyone to bend to their authority, put nose to the industrial grindstone, and to become homogeneous, obedient economic slaves.  That idea, although more temperately stated these days, is still with us.  Let us celebrate diversity, say the ‘progressives’.

At the same time, there is a ferocious anti-immigrant movement in the United States not that different from 1912.  Immigrants, say America Firsters, are threatening the supremacy of English, eroding Protestant principles of hard work and frugality, living off the State in endless cycles of welfare, food stamps, and ADC programs, and bearing children at an alarming rate.  If we don’t watch out, we will be some kind of distorted Blade Runner amalgamation of the world’s races and nationalities.

There may be few of us devotees of Mary Antin and admirers of her simple theories about adopting the country which welcomes you, but we have history on our side.  Immigrants have always assimilated.  I still remember my mother’s scungilli and my father’s bella figura, but Italianness is irrelevant for my children.  I was 90 percent assimilated, and my children 100 percent.  Although anti-immigrationists may howl at all the Spanish language signs on busses, Metro, and courthouses, they are for recent immigrants.  Their first generation children who attend public school, study in English, watch English movies and videos and who are plugged into English social media are already on a fast track to assimilation. 

Why do Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans come here? And why would Africans, Egyptians, Indonesians, and Laotians come if we opened our doors more widely? Because they feel that there is more economic opportunity here, a better life for their children.  Does anyone really believe that Mexicans come here just to get on our liberal welfare rolls?

Depending on how you look at it, America is either an all-assimilating melting pot in which everyone shares a common goal – to make money -  or a co-opting, insidious system which harnesses cheap labor for capitalist ends.  Whichever it is, the result is a country in which new immigrants all pray at the same church – The Market.  European intellectuals have always criticized and looked down on the lack of American culture.  We are all hopelessly idealistic optimists who have bought into an illusory dream of success and in our struggles to the top have neglected anything refined or beautiful.  We export violence, trashy movies, gangsta rap, and reality TV.  They are right.  No one here claims to have the rich cultural history of France; and yes, the insatiable pursuit of wealth doesn’t leave time for a whole lot else; but we immigrants have created an ethos.  We are a nation of entrepreneurs, individualists, economic brawlers and street-fighters, gunslingers and swaggering cowboys, always in contention for bragging rights, territory and influence.  The Irish bar fighter, Italian Mafioso, Jewish haggler have morphed into a muscular hyper-competitive Americanness.

Do I sound like Mary Antin?  I hope so.

The immigration issue seems to be losing some of its contentiousness and vitriol because, lo and behold, Mexicans are returning to Mexico! Why? The economy of Mexico is accelerating at impressive rates.  Its per capita income is the highest in the Latin American region, unemployment rates are falling, and personal income rising.  Why wouldn’t temporary immigrants in slowdown and anti-immigrant America return home?

The market always rules if we let it.  NAFTA, vilified by the Left, has turned out to be the boon that it once promised. Mexico has benefited from the free flow of capital (although much less so labor), and we have benefitted from an increasingly stable, reliable economic partner whose burgeoning economy will assuredly mean fewer illegal migrants to the US.

No one can be for open immigration.  There are so many people in the world who want to come here that we would be flooded with applicants.  Eventually, the tide will turn and immigrants – such as Chinese and Indians – will return to the more economically promising countries of origin; but meanwhile, poor countries would empty out.   The threat of terrorism continues to complicate the issue. 

At the same time, one can be for liberalizing immigration.  There is no reason why we shouldn’t open our doors to talented professionals for whom there are jobs.  American industry, discouraged by the crop of poorly-educated and undisciplined local graduates, are crying out for more immigrants.  There is no reason either why we shouldn’t give amnesty to those illegals who have been here long enough to have gainful employment, families, and a certain degree of assimilation.  There is no reason why not to liberalize NAFTA and other regional economic treaties to include labor as well as capital.

I have heard only one salient argument against immigration – why do we need more people?  Why not shut our doors, be content with what we have, save the environment from continuing degradation from population pressures, and aim for zero growth? I have a close friend who recently retired from a large non-profit agency in Washington.  The company kept on expanding even though no benefits accrued from its larger size.  Executives worked even harder but with no rewards that would come in a for-profit firm; lower-level minions put in routinely 12-hour days to win contracts; and the President wined, dined, and shmoozed to curry favor, win friends, and position the firm for more government largesse.

The point being that no one in America is ever happy with what they’ve got.  We are a nation of builders, explorers, and conquerors.  Zero growth whether for America or for a modest non-profit is simply not an option.

On a more mundane level, I love the new Washington.  When I moved here 35 years ago, the city was just coming into its own.  There was a small Chinatown, but the now vibrant Salvadoran, Korean, and Vietnamese communities were just emerging.  Now Washington has become a city, and I love the choice among bulgogi, pupusas, curries, and pho.  Eventually these ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods will disappear as residents become assimilated and move out; but it is great while it lasts.  New York is perhaps the best example of this positive transition.  In the Sixties when I lived in New York, there were still block-by-block European ethnic neighborhoods; and while some areas of New York are still solidly European (Brighton Beach is very Russian), the Manhattan blocks are either mixed or of a new, Caribbean or Latin ethnicity. 

So, let ‘em in. Let them share in the same bounty, the same heady experience, the same difficult trajectory, and the same optimism of my grandparents. 

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