Hogan's Alley

Friday, March 31, 2006

Not Your Grandfather's Immigration

I've been trying to make sense out of the immigration question as the debate in Washington moves forward. Discerning truth in a matter so fraught with emotional and practical political baggage is not easy.

First, let me state my own family's background. This is important, because our views on this topic are deeply colored by our own histories in this nation of immigrants. My grandparents, on both sides, came to the United States in the early years of the 20th century. They did grunt work to raise their children, who in turn did more challenging work so that their children could be the first in the family history to attend college and work in a professional or white collar careers.

I live in the suburbs of New York City. I love the city, in large part because of the vast multitude of accents in which English is spoken there by what is now, and probably always has been, a majority population of people born outside the continental United States. As has always been the case in New York, ethnic groups tend to gather into physical neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods the home language predominates. But outside those neighborhoods, English is the lingua franca, even if spoken haltingly or badly.

It is the very nature of New York that makes it so. Walking any main thoroughfare in Manhattan you will hear companions speaking Spanish, Hindi, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, and on and on. No one foreign language dominates. Official city documents are offered in a multitude of languages. ATM's offer choices often tailored to the specific neighborhood. In this way, among many others, New York different from the rest of the country. But it is similar in that the energy of all these newcomers and their drive to succeed has been the engine of creativity and effort that has made America great.

Still, in New York and across America, immigration in the early 21st century is markedly different than in past centuries.

1. The Air Age - The universality of relatively cheap air travel makes travel to America and periodic return to ones country of origin for holidays or family occasions the norm. In the 19th and early 20th centuries those who emigrated from home spent most of what they had to get here and despaired of ever seeing their relatives and the sights and smells of home again. It was absolutely unaffordable. Only late in their lives, if ever, did most of that generation of immigrants get to return home for a visit and then often with the help and in the company of their now more prosperous children.

The impact of this fact is that the attachment to the home country remains stronger for newer immigrants than in the past. How does this color the effort to fully adapt to the new country? To identify oneself as fully and truly American? I don't know the answer to this question precisely, but I do have a sense of it from my observations of immigrants from countries as diverse and El Salvador, England and India. Human beings are social animals. We have an inherent need to be accepted by others. So the degree of "Americanization" is now probably fractionally less that in prior generations, but now crucially dependent on where one lives and who one associates with. Those who never leave the comfort of an ethnic ghetto will adapt less or more slowly than those whose lives take them out into the wider America. In this, as always, the children of immigrants will outpace their parents.

My favorite story in this regard occurred about twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to meet a large family who had arrived from Ireland the day before. The children were the spitting image of the Irish children then seen on the nightly news from Londonderry or Belfast. Their clothes, haircuts and of course brogues were, as the saying goes, Irish as Paddy's pig. One year later I again met the family at a social event. Mom and Dad were the same. Still wearing clothes purchased before leaving Ireland and still speaking fully accented English. The children, on the other hand, were absolutely indistinguishable from the American-born children also at the party. Their adaptation was staggering.

Those children, of course, had the advantage of English as a first language. All they had to do was to learn to make it sound like the English of their peers. They also had the advantage of being in schools where they were not allowed, or encouraged, to maintain their brogues.

I think this story illustrates why we can continue to hope that the engine of Americanization will do its work on all who come here. It also points out that the immigrant's attachment to the "old country" will now yield more slowly than in the past and that policies that facilitate or encourage retention of old languages or extensive segregation into ethnic enclaves will delay Americanization.

2. The Predominance of Spanish - The second reality that makes modern immigration different from the classic model is the overwhelming predominance of Spanish as the native language of immigrants from all of Central and South America and much of the Caribbean. Make no mistake about it, people from Puerto Rico hold themselves unique and different from those from Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, etc. They are children of their various native lands more than they are speakers of Spanish. Witness the prominence of the flags of the various Latin American countries visible at any public event, or decorating cars and houses.

But to the non-Spanish speaking American, they all seem of one group. To be fair, the immigrant groups themselves have often banded together to form a united front to maximize their political and cultural power. For example, the largest advocacy group for latinos is L.U.L.A.C, the League of United Latin American Citizens, founded in 1929. This tactic has worked.

Everywhere in America the Spanish language is a virtual second language of commerce. ATM's, telephone answering systems, government documents, product packaging and television broadcasts all feature prominent Spanish language options.

Regardless of where one stands on any particular of the current debates, the undeniable fact is that historically no one immigrant language or culture threatened to dominate English. They were too diverse and had no basis for unity. Now however, it is also undeniable that American culture is being Latinized and that this alarms many Americans and is the basis for calls to declare English the official language of the United States. I think these fears are exaggerated and that such legislation would, ironically, formally acknowledge the decline of the prominence of English. At the same time, those who oppose such legislation cannot pretend that the transition for Spanish-speaking immigrants to a full life in English-speaking will occur at the same rate as it does for native speakers of other languages. The critical mass of Spanish speakers has led business and government to accommodate them as it has never done in the past. This is solely due to the numbers and the political clout of Spanish speakers.

In today's Washington Post there is a feature about a Colorado Republican Congressman named Tom Tancredo who has made his political career center on his fight to limit or eliminate illegal immigration. Now there is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Tancredo, whose district is only 6 percent Hispanic, knows a hot political issue when he sees one. But listen to Rahm Emanuel in this article. He is the Illinois Democrat who is head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I'm all for more and more nuts in their party speaking up. I want more of those guys." You can almost see the sparkle of political avarice in his eyes.

Politicians of all stripes are presently trying to take advantage of the immigration issue. The only truth about the current debate is that all those taking "anti-illegal immigration" stances can stand to loose the Latino vote in their state or district and those taking the opposite stance believe they will be the beneficiaries of grateful Hispanic voters.

3. Stopping Illegal Immigration - I believe that none of the proposals before Congress will have any substantial impact on the rate of illegal immigration. The border cannot be blocked as long as the potential benefits of working in America vs staying in one's homeland are so great. We have seen the enemy and he is us, as Walt Kelly famously wrote. America is the best place to live and raise one's family. Most of the third world and former Soviet states are not. It's as simple as that. As long as that is the case, people will continue to behave in their own rational self-interest. Coming to America makes sense. A reasonable living can be earned and support for family back home can be sent. In some towns in Latin America U.S. earned dollars represent the majority of the income available.

What then to do? We will obviously not make living in America less desirable at its core. Yes, we may require extra cost and effort to sneak across the border or special "guest worker" status or periodic returns to country of origin or even jail time and fines if caught without the proper papers, but those are only inconveniences in the end. It is still, by far, a better deal to be in America than to remain home.

Like the drug trade, build the demand and they will come to fill it. It can not be stopped by walls or armies of border patrol agents.

4. The Answer - The only viable answer lies in making the economies of Central and South America, and the rest of the world for that matter, fully functional and productive. Only then will people not see the need to uproot themselves. This, of course, is the promise of Globalization. Surely it has not worked visible miracles yet, but there have been signs of improvement. Slowly, but surely, countries like India and China are emerging as major players in the world economy. There are still marked inequalities within countries such as those. The new economic growth has not yet reached massive numbers of people in the rural areas. But it is a start.

The debate we should be having would involve the best methods of developing and encouraging rapid economic growth, especially in Latin America. I am not an economist and I am unfamiliar with the various options and issues. My ignorance is in part due to the absolute lack of focus on these issues in the public debate and the continuing attachment to the more familiar and comfortable issues.

The first step is for voices to emerge that give no credence to any politician or pundit who persists in focusing on the border and legal issues. Those have a place, especially in regard to the security of our ports, airports and borders from incursion by those intent on conducting terrorism. But, the only debate that will have any real impact is about how to transform much of the world into a place where true economic success is possible for most of its citizens. Only if that can be achieved will the tide of immigration slow to a level where we can absorb it and where immigrants can continue to supply their unique contribution to the greatness that is America and make it the beacon of the world.

It's not politically sexy, and, God help us, it focuses on the technicalities of the Dismal Science, but it is the only way to work our way to sanity and justice on this issue.