October 19, 2001

Commentary

Immigrants: Old and New

By Domenico Maceri, PhD

An undocumented worker was struck and killed by a van on a highway a few miles from my home in Central California while trying to avoid being caught by immigration officers. Another died on a highway thirty miles from my home under very similar circumstances. Since 1998, 991 people lost their lives as they attempted to cross into the US looking for work. Fourteen died recently in the Arizona desert.

This carnage ought to shock us—and yet somehow it doesn't. Many Americans are sympathetic to immigrants because, after all, this is a nation of immigrants. But like every generation of Americans that has come before us, we like the old immigrant, not the current ones.

Old immigrants are seen with nostalgic eyes: they respected American laws, assimilated, learned English, and did not cause problems nor make demands. They are heroes who built America. The Statue of Liberty is a monument to their struggles and dreams, proof that we value them in the same way we value great presidents and war heroes.

To the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these people, the newest immigrants seem strange—and decidedly unheroic: unwilling to assimilate, demanding to be taught in their own languages, even unpatriotic. A Northern California reader informed me that when Mexican immigrants rooted for their national team rather than the American during a qualifying game for the World Cup soccer, they proved that they had no interest in becoming Americans. Alexi Lalas, a first generation American of Greek ancestry and a well-known US national soccer player, echoed this belief. Bitter about his team's defeat, Lalas criticized Los Angeles fans, most of whom were natives of Mexico, for being happy about his team's loss.

Nostalgic eyes make us see our grand-parents or great grand-parents who came to this country as heroes. Ironically, their contemporaries saw them pretty much the same way most of us see the current crop of immigrants. Irish job applicants faced "No Irish Need Apply" signs. Racial and ethnic epithets were commonplace. Most newcomers were considered less intelligent than native born Americans. In 1921, for example, fifty per cent of the special education students in New York City schools were Italian immigrants.

Our respect for our immigrant forebears is a good thing, but not if that respect keeps us from realizing that most people saw our ancestors as stupid, lazy, unpatriotic and unwilling to assimilate. The reality is that all immigrants, old and new, have the same urges: a search for better opportunities for themselves and especially for their children. This applies as much to those who just entered the country as it does to "old" immigrants. Even the first immigrants— "Native Americans" who entered what would become the USA ten thousand or more years later— were searching for opportunities. Everyone in the US is an immigrant in one form or another.

It would be simplistic to say that modern immigrants are treated worse than those who came at the turn of the century or before. American society has improved. Immigrants now have rights that old immigrants never had. Yet simply because immigrants in the past were treated very badly is no excuse for treating the latest arrivals in a similar fashion.

Several years ago the United States and Mexican governments approved NAFTA, which makes it easier for companies to sell their products across borders. The legislation was supported by business in both countries with considerable lobbying on both sides of the Rio Grande. Poor people, unfortunately, don't have the resources to lobby for their rights and create favorable legislation for them. It's OK for companies to sell their products in both countries but it's not OK for people to sell their services. Maybe it's time for the American and Mexican governments to get together and organize programs so that people can move across the border legally and obtain employment without having to risk their lives to earn a decent living for themselves and their families.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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