Saturday, February 3, 2007

On immigration, multiculturalism and the threat to western civilization

As someone who devotes a lot of time and effort to the issue of immigration and its ancillary components, be they social justice, free trade, racism or economics, I like to think that over time I've acquired a working understanding of the various positions on the issue. Although I might not agree with some of these positions for various reasons, I can, for the most part, understand how or why one might hold them. For example, an unemployed tech worker who argues there should be more restrictions on the admission of foreign workers makes sense to me, even if I don't see eye to eye with his solution. This is true of many of the positions of those who advocate for a more restrictive and sometimes punitive solution to the "immigration problem."

Yet for the life of me I can't seem to wrap my mind around the "Death of the West", "immigrants are destroying American culture" "why don't they speak English" mentality that sometimes permeates the debate.

But maybe that's because I'm from New York and we've had more experience than any other group in the world when it comes to dealing with "invading hordes of immigrants."

Yeah, Yeah, I know… it's not about immigration …it's about "illegal immigration"

I hear that all the time. And in the same breath I hear "and I don't want to have to dial 1 for English."

If it were really about "illegal" immigration we wouldn't see English-only bills floating around state legislatures and Pat Buchanan wouldn't have a second best selling book about Mexicans taking over "White America."

We wouldn't see the processing fees for legal immigration skyrocketing with the cost for naturalization rising 80 percent for applicants. The fee for lawful permanent residence wouldn't be rising 178 percent from $325 to $905, and the fee for fingerprinting wouldn't be going up 14 percent effective June 2007. There wouldn't be a movement to eliminate the allocation of thousands of green cards and temporary work visas from the current program.

I could argue statistics and figures all day. There's the fact that the majority of congressional immigration hawks come from districts with the lowest percentage of foreign born in the country, or that only 5000 green cards are issued annually to unskilled workers out of over 140,000. Or that in 2004 only two employment-based green cards were issued to Mexican unskilled workers, or that it takes over six years for the spouse of a Legal Permanent Resident to receive an immigrant visa. The list goes on, but the fact remains that despite all the protestations and denials, one of the driving forces behind this whole issue is a fear that immigrants somehow make America ... "less American"

But, But, But … I can hear it now. "What about the costs, what about the jobs they take, what about the taxes, then there's crime and healthcare and education … immigrants, and particularly the "illegal" ones have an adverse effect on our lives."

Really … How do you know that?

Currently there are a boatload of studies available that conclude that most of these "known facts" are either false or at the very least reside an area gray enough to leave a lot for room for interpretation. The same can be said of the studies that show the tremendous burden immigrant's place on society. Those who are honest on both sides of the debate admit that the documentation on the benefits and costs of immigration is a work in progress and no one can definitively state a case either way. The best we can do is look at the most current data, from the most reputable sources, and go from there.

Yet, that doesn't stop those who "know" how immigrants cause rising crime rates, force hospitals to shutter their doors because they can no longer afford to give immigrants "free health care," or collect welfare benefits and didn't pay taxes, from spouting off their "facts."

But I digress.

You see, one of the most common defenses of the "immigrants are wrecking this country" crowd is to tell people that unless they live on the border or an area "overrun" with immigrants, they have absolutely no idea what's going on, and by extension have no right to have an opinion. You hear it all the time in debates over the issue. "You don't know what it's like to walk into an emergency room, and wait for hours because it's filled with "illegals," or " I went into a store and the workers didn't speak English, what's happening to this country."

Here is where the New Yorker in me comes out.

Every year New York is in the top three states for the number of foreign born residents both legal and illegal. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the state can figure out, the bulk of those immigrants live in and around the NYC area. In fact in some areas the foreign born far out number native residents. My particular area has one of the largest and fastest growing immigrant populations in the nation. But the chief difference between here and the rest of the country is, this is not a new situation for us. It's been going on for the last 383 years.

I dare say that except for those kidnapped and forcibly brought to this country in the belly of a slave ship to be sold in a port such as Charleston, or who whose roots go back to a time before Columbus, vast numbers of Americans could trace their steps back to a point where family tread the same streets New Yorkers walk today.

We have a long history with "invading hordes of immigrants."

While it has certainly not always been some sort of multicultural heaven, a great rainbow of humanity all hand in hand singing kumbaya, over the years we've learned to deal …adapt … and accept.

When I hear talk about English-only and complaints about foreign languages being spoken I just can't fathom why this is even an issue. Walk the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, what do you hear? To those from the heartland what sounds like a cacophony of languages is actually a symphony. It's the sound of the future… and the past.

Neighborhoods that once were the home of Yiddish theaters and pushcart merchants now bounce to the beat of West Indian rhythms, while Koreans arrange meticulously manicured fruits on sidewalk stands. To this day, signs on the stores and newspapers in the stands come in almost every language in the world. This is nothing new … it's the way it's always been.

When some speak of the destruction of "American Culture" one must ask what exactly is "American" culture. Is it the music we listen to that’s and amalgam of African rhythms and traditional Irish and Scotch folk music? Is it the foods we eat like hot dogs or pizza that come from our immigrant past? Is it the movies we watch, or the books we read whose influences cross the boundaries of cultures and time? Is it our form of government and our institutions that are uniquely "American?" For they too did not arise in a vacuum, but sprung from ions of human societal development.

Maybe because I come from a place that has always been diverse, I see American culture as a more fluid proposition.

To me American culture is when you go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade or the fireworks at the river on the Fourth of July and stand shoulder to shoulder with those who speak languages from around the world, some dressed in their native garb, some looking American as apple pie. Yet we are all gathered to celebrate the same thing … we celebrate America. For me it's just the way it's always been since I was a kid.

For most Americans September 11th is a somber day, a day to remember. But for those of us here it means a little more. Each year the local TV stations still cover the memorial services from beginning to end. Every year they read the names of the fallen again in order that we never forget. And we never will. But one thing that is always striking as the bells toll and the bereaved struggle as they try to read the list. So many of the names are not "American." For every Jones or Smith whose name is read there is an equal if not greater number of Garcias, Kims, Nguyens or Lopez's. Names whose origins are Arabic and African, Chinese and Chilean, Romanian and Russian. That day drew no line between the "real Americans" and those who recently arrived to toil in the parking garage or the kitchen at Windows on the World. That day, for those fateful moments, they were all simply Americans.

I know that away from the bubble that is my East Coast, Blue State, Liberal world, many view us with disdain. We're loud and pushy, sometimes rude and smart-aleky, Often accused of being "out of touch" with the great expanse that is this nation. But when it comes to immigration and living in Americas version of a multicultural word we have some considerable experience. …. And ya know wat…it ain't so bad.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article! Must agree with you. I come from an officially bi-lingual country. The bi-lingual thing is on its way to looking quaint as more groups speaking other languages enter and grow. The schools still adhere to the two language dictum which frankly only gives the kids confidence that they can indeed learn yet another new language.