It’s not your grandmother’s (or perhaps your great-grandmother’s) immigration debate.
At both the beginning of the 20th and 21st centuries, America has found itself in intense debates over immigration. Interestingly, the number of immigrants entering, both legally and illegally, at the beginning of each century was fairly similar: About a million a year.
(For 50 years or so in the middle of the 20th century there was very little immigration, both because of restrictive immigration laws and the more static _ and so less attractive _ nature of our economy.)
It’s estimated that there now are between 11 million and13 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
The make-up of the immigrant classes has changed dramatically. Once mainly European, now it’s mostly Mexican, South American and Asian. But the debate is comparable: What is the impact of immigrants on the economy and on the Americans already here, and just what does it mean to be American anyway? Then, what do we do with today’s immigrants _ and tomorrow’s?
Add to this mix the issue of national security _ and worries that terrorists could easily slip through porous Mexican and Canadian borders. Even with national concerns aside, there are the concerns of the folks who live along our border with Mexico regarding the stream of immigrants coming across their property as they head illegally into this country.
And yet America desperately needs the labor that comes with the immigrants; they fill jobs Americans won’t. Though some immigrants come for the benefits _ welfare, schools, medical care _ it’s been demonstrated over and over that most come to work, and, on the whole, immigration is a net gain to the business economy.
Now Washington is stepping into this roiling cauldron, making news in recent months for its effort to strengthen border patrol, to penalize illegal immigrants (for a while there was a move to make them felons) or to legalize millions of immigrants already here with a guest-worker program.
Every one of these proposed provisions has infuriated somebody.
But none of that really speaks to why it’s not your grandmother’s immigration debate. Here’s what does: Immigrants, legal and illegal, have poured into the streets in recent days demanding that America change its laws to better suit them, seeming too often like houseguests furious at the meals they are being served by their host. Here’s what may sum it up best: According to The New York Times, “In Washington, demonstrators … draped themselves in the banners of their homelands as they cheered ….”
Wait a minute. “Homelands”?
A century ago, immigrants, who unfortunately often experienced discrimination upon arrival _ think the Irish and Jews in particular _ typically assimilated and gratefully adopted America as their home within a generation, or two at most.
That’s too often no longer the case. Now, instead of becoming Americans _ in particular, learning our language _ immigrants, including illegal immigrants, march to demonstrate their “grievances,” including their opposition to suggestions that they be required to obey American immigration laws.
Writer Thomas Sowell recently put it this way on Townhall.com: “Immigrants in past centuries came here to become Americans, not to remain foreigners, much less to proclaim the rights of their homelands to reclaim American soil, as some of the Mexican activist groups have done. … Today, immigrant spokesmen promote grievances, not gratitude, much less patriotism … .”
Many immigrants would eagerly assimilate. It’s often Hispanic parents who fight hardest against bilingual education for their own kids, for instance, because they see how destructive it is for their children who ultimately don’t learn enough English through such programs. Too often, however, their “leadership” quite literally won’t allow assimilation.
It was such leadership that carefully orchestrated the recent demonstrations.
Unfortunately, immigrants, legal and illegal, instead of being turned into Americans, are being turned into another “victim” class demanding entitlements by a leadership seeking its own political advancement without regard for immigrants or other Americans.
That, sadly, has become the “American way.”
And that’s why this is not your grandmother’s immigration debate — why now it’s about so much more than immigration. It’s about who we are, who we are going to be, and what we cherish as Americans.
Until we figure it out, look for a lot more angry demonstrations.
(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids _ and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at www.betsyhart.net or betsysblog.com.)