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Reviving the Great Melting Pot

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A recent book by Wall Street Journal editor Jason Riley describes an editorial cartoon depicting “a hulking, exhausted new arrival to America’s shores. … a small mob greets the man, each individual representing a voice in the raucous immigration debate. A contractor says ‘He gives me cheap labor.’ A workman says, ‘He cheapens my labor.’ A health officer says, ‘He brings disease.’ A citizen calls him ‘a menace.'”

The year: 1903.

The immigration debate has not changed much since then. Irish, Italian and East European immigrants 125 years ago were mostly uneducated, settled where crime and violence ran rampant, took low-skilled, back-breaking jobs, and were considered by many Americans to be inferior, disease-ridden drunkards and certainly of a race that could never assimilate into real Americans.

They were legal immigrants, though it didn’t take much to be legal back then, and the standard was one most illegal immigrants could easily meet today.
For instance, my great grandfather came to America in 1883, in a wave of Germans arriving at a rate exceeding that of Mexican immigrants today. He needed only to show up on our shores, be vouched for by someone in the United States holding a job, and be free from any diseases (including “lunacy”). Since he wasn’t Chinese (who were banned), he became one of the 98 percent of arrivals entering unmolested.

And in just a few generations, the descendents of those once derided as undesirable would rise to positions of power and influence in government, business, and society.
An honest look at documents from a century ago demonstrates that many of the local concerns expressed about behaviors today – boarding houses, trash, drinking – were associated with new immigrants back then, as well.

But the world has changed. What was just barely tolerable in 1898’s urban environment is understandably unacceptable in a 2008 suburban neighborhood.

And the challenges of assimilation are more complex. Today’s immigrant faces daunting legal and financial systems and an economic system increasingly dependent on high technology and technical skills. Further, decades of policies emphasizing our differences and fostering multiculturalism now seem to have had the effect of discouraging exactly the kind of citizenship that strengthens our national bonds and makes new immigrants full partners in American society.

When our forebears arrived, they insisted their children learn English. Today, schools offer bilingual education, leaving today’s children at a severe disadvantage.
Those newcomers of old scrambled to become American citizens. Today, they have the option of dual citizenship, with concomitant dual loyalties.

It makes sense to ask an important question: Are we, effectively, creating a “Press One for English” culture that devalues Americanization?

In 1915, a broad group of civic leaders – from business and unions to the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Catholic Church – formed the National Americanization Committee (NAC). The committee’s concerns ranged from the state of American citizenship, to the massive influx of immigrants, to political corruption.

Through the NAC, liberals and conservatives, they forged a compact on both sides: Immigrants were expected to learn English and become American. But immigrants were also given help in doing that. The group refused to leave immigrants to their own devices and focused on integrating them into American society.

It sounds a lot like something former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros is working on. According to Cisneros, his group, Our Pledge, has the same dual focus, as he puts it: “to bring the message of the importance of Americanization to the immigrants as well as to the larger society, “and to “reach out through a network of affiliates, allies, and church groups to bring an Americanization theme on top of the legalization and social services now being offered.”

In return, Cisneros expects a commitment from immigrants – to become fluent in English and become a citizen, become part of the financial system through financial literacy and home ownership, and to be personally involved in their children’s education.

The “immigration wars” are old, but should be expected in a nation founded on the ideas of freedom rather than a common ethnicity, and in which – as Ronald Reagan put it – “anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and be an American.”

Perhaps the strategy for a cease-fire is just as old.

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