Monday, June 13, 2005

Thoughts on Immigration

The United States is entering a unique period in its long and storied history of immigration. Never before have such a large group of people come into this nation speaking one, non-English language. I think the single language issue is important. Many people talk about how current levels of immigration are reminiscent of those around turn of the twentieth century America, even if by percentage of population they are much lower. And it is true that there are similarities. Both periods witnessed millions of immigrants coming to America for available jobs that native-born Americans either did not want or could not fill enough of. Both periods saw an amazing amount of people coming to the US and returning multiple times as they intend/ed to ultimately move back to their home nation. And both periods have witnessed racist propaganda against these immigrants.

But despite these similarities, the language issue makes them very different. And that's because increasingly we are seeing an America split into 2 classes--those who speak English and those who don't. Now obviously it's far more complicated than that. There are huge swaths of America where immigration from Latin America is just really starting to be seen in large numbers. There are poor white and poor black people across America. These are important points. But, and I am hardly the first person to point this out, we increasingly have an economy where English speakers are served and Spanish speakers are providing the services. Even here in New Mexico it's quite remarkable. New Mexico naturally has a higher Latino population than most states. On the other hand, it's split into some weird groups, namely villages where an archaic form of Spanish is still spoken. But even here, where you would expect to hear more Spanish, it's somewhat amazing to walk into a place and literally every person working there is of Latin American descent and most are first and second generation. Sometimes, literally not one person inside your neighborhood Taco Bell or working on construction projects is a native English speaker. This may not be historically remarkable but what is remarkable is that they are all native Spanish speakers.

Early twentieth century immigration was amazingly diverse, at least through the European countries. Today we also have a lot of people coming to the US from Haiti, Asia, and other non-Spanish speaking nations, but they are overwhelmed in many places by Spanish-speaking immigration. This phenomenon could have both positive and negative effects. It was very difficult to create class solidarity in early 20th American labor, even among immigrants, because they came from so many different nations and spoke so many different languages. Employers knew this and employed a diverse workforce to discourage unions. Today, most of the Spanish speaking immigrants are from Mexico and Central America. They all speak Spanish and while there is some history of animosity between some of the Central American nations, for the most part this is not a problem here in the US, and in any case I have not heard of a single case of employers hiring, say, 1/2 Salvadorans and 1/2 Hondurans because the two groups can't get along.

While the potential for class solidarity is there, I am concerned about a Spanish-speaking underclass forming in this nation. While I have no interest in supporting the morons who say that this is an English-speaking nation and that immigrants should learn the language, one advantage of old immigrants was that they often had to learn English in order to communicate with their fellow workers. In this immigration cycle though, Spanish speakers are transforming American culture more than being transformed by it. The increasingly mainstream Spanish media is the best example of this. But does this mean that English speaking whites will see Hispanics more as a permanent underclass like all too many still view blacks or that they will be more accepted into American society as their numbers continue to grow? This I think is one of the more interesting questions concerning American society over the next 20 years or so.