By Domenico Maceri, PhD
"Pretty soon there will be more of them than us," my neighbor told me, with serious concern. "Us" meant native-born Americans.
Her comment confused me. I wasn't born in the United States, and although a lot of hard work over the years has made my English pretty good, I think my accent still makes my origins unmistakable. I'll never get rid of the accent completely. I'm not sure I want to.
"Them?" I asked, certain I'd misunderstood. Surely I was one of "them." Immigrants, my neighbor explained, invading "our" country. Apparently my accent is not as obvious as I think, allowing me to pass, if I want to, as one of "us."
I've lived in the United States for thirty years - two-thirds of my life - and I consider myself more American than Italian. But the honor of being considered a native, which would have thrilled me when I was fifteen and could barely wrap my mouth around English words, is starting to feel less than honorable. In order to become a real American, must I also become a bigot?
A few years ago, an acquaintance told my wife that she had given up trying to talk to a friend of ours who was born in Asia. It wasn't worth the effort it took to understand her, the acquaintance said.
Our friend speaks English with a heavy Chinese accent and her voice is barely above a whisper. It's true, she's difficult to understand. But she is also one of the kindest, most charming and intelligent people I have ever met. And is sitting down and paying attention too much effort to ask, when the reward is not only a friendship with a wonderful person, but the chance to learn more about a culture I will never experience first hand, but only through what she tells me?
I think the woman who won't make the effort to open up to another culture has lost more than she will ever know. And I think, as a culture, we are becoming more and more like that impatient woman.
But, deep down, we all know that we need immigrants. Because they are paid less than what they should be, companies profit and eventually pass on some of those savings to consumers. So we all benefit from the lower prices made possible by cheap labor, whether in agriculture, restaurants, child care, or construction - in any work too unpleasant for the rest of us to do.
And if at any given moment there aren't plenty of immigrants available to do the work, farmers scream that crops will rot. Then the government steps in with a program designed to bring in guest workers on a temporary basis, but still farmers aren't happy. Too bureaucratic. Too costly.
Translation: those programs require granting decent wages and benefits. Could it be that if decent wages were paid, more Americans might be willing to do those jobs and there would not be a labor shortage?
Obviously, we need immigrants. We just don't want them. They look and speak different. They don't want to learn English. And we don't want to educate their children, because, after all, they're here illegally.
We're quite willing, however, to accept the work their parents do for us so cheaply, as long as they don't ask anything of us. We want it all - the immigrants labor without the responsibility to deal with them as fellow human beings. We need them, but we don't want to pay for them, either in money, or in the time and effort it takes to understand them. We wish they would disappear once they did our dirty work, stop bothering us with their strange customs and confusing accents.
But they won't. Ever. They keep coming, attempting to fulfill dreams, as generations before them have done. Just as the parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents of all the bigots did. It would be nice if we recognized our own heritage in the immigrants' struggles. For me, as an immigrant, it's easy, but I don't think it should be much of a burden for any American. When you add it all up, "them" is really "us." That was always the dream. That's why, in thirty years, I never considered leaving my new home.
Domenico Maceri (firstname.lastname@example.org), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.