Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Immigration Debate

Not suprisingly, George W. Bush has come out and said that the "Star-Spangled Banner" has more meaning in English than in Spanish. This argument is absurd on the face of it. It equates language with citizenship, which I believe is one small step away from equating race with citizenship.

The United States is not a country of English-speakers. Nor has it been historically. As early as the mid-18th century, English-speakers were bitching about all the German being spoken in the colonies. Throughout the early 19th century, the languages of western Europe were spoken throughout the new nation as immigrants flooded from Germany, France, and Ireland (and naturally I am asserting that the Irish don't speak English). Between 1880 and 1920, immigration exploded in the United States. One could walk the street of any large US city and hear dozens of languages spoken every hour. In the Midwest, Norwegian, Swedish, German, and even Czech speakers far outnumbered native-born English speakers. Native-born Anglo Saxon Americans freaked out over this, studied eugenics, organized anti-immigration societies, watched with rhapsody the 1915 film Birth of a Nation (not dealing with immigrants) and then, inspired by the movie, began the Second Ku Klux Klan (very much about immigrants). Whiteness was threatened and Americans responded by closing the doors of the United States to immigrants from Asia and Central and Southern Europe. Immigration restrictions were much less on our southern border because cheap labor was needed so Americans could eat lettuce in January.

Only in the 41 years between 1924 and 1965 did America not have relatively open doors to those who wanted to make a better life here. During the 1970s and 1980s, the nation still seemed white and English-speaking because immigrant numbers had not risen to the present total--if you were in a Dominican neighborhood in New York City maybe, but of course for many of the anti-immigrant crowd, New York is not really America either. But over the last 10 years, the immigrant totals have risen to percentages not seen since the 1920s (though they are still well below them in relation to the total population) and they are making real differences in American life. These differences, including hearing other languages spoken on the street, and even singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" for Christ's sake, are American. Immigration is as much of an American tradition as speaking English, eating food that is chicken-fried, and bitching about the government. We need to welcome these immigrants for what they are--the future of the United States of America. Immigration has caused very little harm in American history and has led to massive amounts of good. It's time people starting thinking about this issue with some actual facts about the meanings of Americanness instead of shooting from the racist hip.