Sunday, January 20, 2008

What Makes an American?

Xenophobia is certainly not anything new in the United States. My German-born ancestors were mocked by Ben Franklin and others for their foreignness, including their preference for speaking their mother tongue, including publishing German-language newspapers in various communities in the new world.
Why should the Palatine boors [the Germans] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will soon be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.
Here we are several generations down the road, my English is pretty good, my German, non-existent but for a few words and phrases remembered from one high school German class. But I do enjoy a good meal of wiener schnitzel from time to time. And so the road has been traveled by immigrants from all over the world. The United States has a long history of giving and taking from those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But, as Franklin's quote also shows us, we also have a long history of fearing the unknown of just what those immigrants are bringing with them.

We are at another stage in our national life when xenophobia has made its way to the front of the discussion on immigration. There can be rational, logical and practical discussions on any topic. But all too often many in the discussion toss thinking out the window and react out of emotion and fear, not logic or practicality.

One such example is right here in my own back yard, in the state of Virginia. The past few years have seen some ludicrous and bizarre reactions to the immigration debate in that state. In just two weeks of legislative work, over 100 bills on the topic of immigration have been introduced. I have not read most, even many of the bills. So I am holding out hope that among the 100+ there are at least a few that deal with the topic in a useful way.

There are, however, some that expose the fears behind their authors' words, including:
  • A proposal to require driver's license exams to be conducted only in English
  • Several that seek to declare English Virginia's official language (a law that would find victims among more than a few white, non-Hispanic, US-born Virginians I've met over the years).
  • A proposal that would require defendants to pay for language interpreters in court if convicted.
  • Give police officers the authority to begin deportation proceedings.
  • Require students to show a valid birth certificate before entering public K-12 schools or college.
  • Create a state agency to deal with illegal immigration.
And my favorite of them all - two different bills that would allow employers to fire workers for misconduct if they speak a language other than English at work.

I have known at least two people since moving to DC who were foreign-born and living in the country illegally. One of them spoke the King's English, being from London. The other spoke and wrote English wonderfully in public, but only her native language when at home with her parents and grandfather, who had never learned English in his 80-some years. My British friend held down a very well paying job with a top company in the city. My Italian friend worked as a free-lance interpreter and writer. Despite living here for at least 10-15 years, neither ever applied to be a US citizen. I never asked about their legal documents, but would have to assume that they were either non existent, or just as fake as the illegal Spanish-speaking immigrant who might have fixed part of the restaurant dinner I had last night. Or picked the lettuce for the salad I'm having for lunch.

So why is it that the British and Italian illegal immigrants have nice, well-paying jobs and from what I can see, crisis-free lives while the state of Virginia is on a man-hunt to track down those restaurant workers and migrant farmers?


Blogger buckarooskidoo said...

I think you could answer this question by recalling why it was only the Japanese who were interned during World War II as potential fifth columns. How many million people of German ancestry did we have living all over the country, to say nothing of Italians...somehow they never ended up behind barbed wire. One might think it had something to do with race...

12:16 PM  
Blogger Carol Gee said...

Good post.
Xenophobia is so awfully selective, and of the moment. We just never seem to get it that (without papers) is without papers.
I think also that the current epidemic comes from a perceived smaller pie, out of which all of us must eat. The current administration has made the nation poorer, economically and spiritually. A sense of deprivation does not well engender open arms.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Jump to the Left said...

Excellent post.
Excellent questions.

Aren't the answers ugly?


Thanks for the good read.

1:44 PM  

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