“We are a nation of immigrants.” That statement has become a rhetorical staple in the current debate over immigration. The remark is often used to portray critics of open-border policies as hypocrites—folks who would deny to others the opportunities they themselves were afforded. That argument ignores several points.
First, the vast majority of Americans aren’t themselves immigrants. Rather, they are descendents of individuals who came to this country over a century ago. John Kennedy’s book, A Nation of Immigrants, put the number of those coming to America through the 1950s at 42 million.
Second, those immigrants overwhelmingly came to this country legally and were generally screened rigorously before being allowed to remain in the United States. Ellis Island stands as an historical testament to that process.
Third, prior to 1965, 95% of all immigrants came from European countries to a land to which (by virtue of the ocean they had crossed) they were making an irrevocable commitment. Large German, Jewish, Irish, and Italian communities sprang up in various cities—especially New York. But none of those discrete communities rivaled the larger Anglo-American culture of that metropolis. Indeed, the very fact that immigrants were from so many nations tended to make a lingua franca, English, a commercial and social necessity.
Immigration today is a different affair—with 36 million immigrants currently in the country (including an estimated 12 million illegals) and an annual legal influx exceeding a million persons. About 10 million of these foreign-born individuals are from Mexico—and 7 million from other Latin America countries. These massive numbers foster Hispanic concentrations in Los Angeles that far surpass in scope and influence the old ethnic neighborhoods of New York.
Moreover, Mexicans don’t have an ocean to cross to get back to their native country. What they do have are multi-billion dollar media corporations that link them closely to their culture and to the families to which, reportedly, 64% regularly send money. As Gov. Schwarzenegger indelicately noted, this cultural immersion hinders many of these individuals from developing skills in English.
One must add another factor to these unique qualities of contemporary immigration. Many Mexicans bear an historic grudge against the “Colossus to the North”—a grudge rooted in the belief that the American Southwest was stolen from their native country in 1848. Furthermore, this feeling of historical injustice is often connected with appeals to “racial” solidarity that, as history shows, have huge appeal.
Given the fact that American society no longer encourages assimilation the way it once did, it is likely that animosity will continue to grow between “la raza” and English-speaking, multi-generational Americans. Activist Enrique Morones’ recent denunciation of the proposed statue of Pete Wilson, which is to be placed on private land, provides an example of the language that is becoming common in bi-cultural California. Wilson is called a racist and his statue compared to one of Hitler.
For border-straddlers whose numbers dwarf prior immigrant groups, the urge to pledge allegiance to the U.S. isn’t what it was for Ukrainians in 1900.