Comment become post: Two audios demonstrate differing perspectives. The Blogosphere one gives broader context: near the beginning of the Helen/Glen podcast interview with Austin Bay/Jim Dunnigan the factors of contemporary immigration versus that of the century before are discussed. The MSM (well, NPR) take is more politicized; Melissa Block interviews former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda on All Things Considered.
When I was a kid in the middle of the last century, we felt the centrality of immigration to our sense of who we were as Nebraskans. My father talked of walking down main street in the thirties, when he could hear three or four languages. (Main street was only about three blocks long.) Towns nearby were known as Danish (Minden), Irish Catholic (Heartwell), German Catholic (Roseland), German Lutheran (Kenesaw), Swedish (Oakland), Czech (Wilber) etc. etc. The Cuban immigration after Castro influenced some of our culture as did the Lithuanian and Latvians in post-WWII movements. This was who we were – we were all these but all these were us, no more & no less than those whose ancesters had come west during reconstruction or followed the trains as they connected east & west. Out of the many came America. Now, Asian & Hispanic ethnicities add their culture & foods & voices.
If the Irish Republicans could somehow, over the years, assimilate – then why can’t modern immigrant groups? Well, it is different – but that different? The radicals of 1900 were seldom out on the plains (although Tillie Olsen grew up in Omaha). But, in more urban settings, quite radical immigrant politics was clearly a factor. Is this more or less true today? Our institutions, like our schools, have changed. But how important will that prove to be?
Jorge Castaneda describes the Mexican view of the U.S. immigration debate. Block, in typical NPR style, throws no “hard balls.” No suggestion is made that perhaps America might be less attractive if Mexico were less corrupt and its economy, education and justice systems more sensible. Certainly, one of the strongest arguments for NAFTA was a win/win – that with more open trade, Mexico would become more attractive to its own citizens. Surely, most would prefer working in a Spanish-speaking country close to their roots. Generally, we don’t choose the rigors of a new language & culture and leave our family behind without either a powerful attraction from the new country or a powerful prod from the old. (Sure, I’m unusually incompetent at languages, but I figure this is a pretty good generalization.)
Nonetheless, the interview concentrates on “anti-American” feeling in Mexico – prompted by Iraq, etc. but inflamed by some of the proposed restrictions. Sure, if a very far left president follows Fox in reaction to us, well, that will be bad–though I suspect worse for the Mexicans than America. And this may be more likely because the independent, ambitious workers that would be most appalled by such a government have already left. Besides a source of income for Mexico in terms of money sent from America, we have also provided a safety valve; immigration lets out some of the natural pressure arising in a nation that disappoints its citizens.
While many of us see immigration as generally a good, such interviews are not very useful. If any group (Taliban at Yale or Mexican at the southwest border) is anti-American, then we are not likely to open our arms and borders. Surely any society that welcomes people who despise them may need some Dr. Phil time. Of course, my experience with Mexicans in this society is not that we all form some really dysfunctional family in dire need of counseling.
The relatively lengthy Helen/Glenn pod-cast interview with Austin Bay/Jim Dunnigan hits on many topics; however, relatively early they discuss the difference between immigration a hundred years ago – before cheap air travel, inexpensive international telephone service, e-mail, etc. made “home” close. Now families (and we see it among our friends) send their children back to summer camps, to perfect their language skills and to stay acquainted with grandparents & cousins. The wakes thrown as an Irish immigrant set out for the states reflected a reality – once left, they were unlikely to return; pressure for assimilation was intensified by alienation from the old – communication was difficult & sporadic. That is not true now. Certainly, for even quite poor Mexican workers, returning regularly to renew family ties is relatively easy.
Another distinction (and I’m not sure how important) is the religion of modern Muslim immigrants. The Catholic & Protestant churches pressured assimilation: the Irish & Italians shared communion, as did the Swedes and Germans. Certainly, the Catholic church continues to provide this sacred, multi-ethnic community. But Muslim immigrants are not likely to share a mosque with those who have been here for a hundred or more years. Instead, it is likely to contain mainly those in that first difficult stage, when culture shock is hardest.
Wage differentials are also affected. When immigration is heavy (as at 1900 & 2000), wage & wealth gaps appear disproportionate. This evened out during the middle years, prompted both by FDR legislation but also because by limiting immigration and increasing assimilation, the descendents of the 1900 immigrants were able to develop skills and accrue capital. I suspect we will have to wait another fifty years to know for sure how this plays out now.
Of course, it is an insult to group immigrants who spend time at the embassy and patiently wait out the long & often irritating delays with those who break the law and arrive as illegal immigrants.
And it doesn’t do Mexican illegals a favor to turn their cause into a political football nor trumpet a profound anti-Americanism when we wish to control our borders nor for radical groups to call for annexation of southwest states. It is also not, I suspect, very representative of the Mexicans who work across this country. They made a choice with their feet and I have trouble thinking of them as virulently anti-American. For one thing, they are too busy to brood. They are here because they believe Mexico offers them neither economic opportunity nor security. This lack, the implicit criticism those feet make, is an important point to keep in mind when we hear Fox and such representatives as Castaneda. We may have failed in fixing our “border problem” – but the border problem arises from the quite real problems in Mexico itself.