Monday, April 10, 2006

Xenophobia in the Immigration Debate

All across the country, pro-immigrant rallies continue and many are drawing unprecedented crowds. Quite clearly there are a lot of people concerned that America is about to move in the wrong direction on immigration. But is this a movement spurred solely by the desire to preserve a porous border while guaranteeing that America’s low-wage jobs and public assistance programs remain available to illegal immigrants? Or is this outpouring also a reaction to some of the xenophobic rhetoric that currently masquerades as “immigration reform?”

For many principled opponents of illegal-immigration, the concern centers around the fact that illegal immigrants drive down wages for working-class Americans and overly burden our public education and assistance programs. But not every one who wants to stop illegal immigration is all that concerned with the very real economic costs. Instead, they’re focused on what they see as cultural costs.

A great example is the highly publicized Minuteman Project which, in its description of itself, doesn’t mention jobs or public assistance at all. Instead, the Minutemen are focused on our culture. To them, the cost of unfettered illegal immigration is this:

Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together, and a certain guarantee of the death of this nation as a harmonious "melting pot."

Even some critics who start their argument with economic rationales, have a tendency to end up discussing illegal immigrants as if they were an imperialist army threatening to divide America. Certainly there are assimilation problems with the illegal immigrant community. But the kind of rhetoric spouted by groups like the Minuteman Project borders on the xenophobic.

Assimilation into the American culture has never been a one-way street. Some native traditions are discarded when immigrant groups become Americans, but some traditions are adopted into the cultural fabric of America and define the cultures of our many regions. Whether it’s the Scandinavian influences in our northern plains, the Jewish influences on the East Coast, the Chinese influences in San Francisco, the Germans in Pennsylvania, the Cubans in Florida or the Irish and Africans in Tennessee, local culture is heavily laced with the traditions, cuisines and cultural identifiers of the immigrants who settled there.

As a resident of San Antonio, a city deeply defined by Mexican culture, I am dismayed anytime I read statements fearful of what Mexican influence will do to American cities. I love this city and I love its Mexican overtones. San Antonio is no less American because all the products on our shelves are in Spanish and English, because a slower pace is expected, because we’ll wrap just about anything in a tortilla.

San Antonians revere American freedoms and American democracy and American ideals just as much as people from any other city. And I suspect, given time, all these other cities where Mexicans are settling will find that, while their culture may shift, their Americaness will remain just as strong. Because, in the end, while immigrant cuisines and festivals and even some attitudes will take hold, the great freedoms of our American culture always win.

Immigration has always created strife and there have always been those who refuse to assimilate. But if we are going to rationally and effectively solve the current over-saturation of immigrants, we must do so out of economic concerns. To claim that this involves cultural pollution is ignorantly divisive and will only complicate matters by angering all those who see nothing abhorrent in Mexican culture.

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