Immigration, Assimilation and Identity

by Frank Spinelli

When Latinos staged protest marches across the country last spring, waving Mexican flags and demanding recognition, my response was twofold: first, I thought, "this movement needs better PR." This thought was fleeting, although I still think itís valid. The second thought arose in conjunction with the first: thereís much more to this issue than meets the eye. I live in Arizona, one of the hotbeds of the debate, and am employed in the food service industry, so I work side by side with many Latinos. I view them not as faceless statistics, but as human beings with drive and grit and, indeed, a strong work ethic; and what could be more American than that?

Americans are besieged by media images and political rhetoric: hordes of illegal immigrants swarming across the border, stealing jobs, leaching off the system, getting fat off the sweat of honest, legal immigrants and natives. In fact, this particular argument is repeated like a mantra: We are a country of laws, and they are breaking the law! End of story! No mention is made in that argument about the Minutemen, the self-appointed militia who patrols the border and detains, without benefit of Federal or local authority, those trying to cross illegally. We cheer them and their spirit of do-it-yourself defiance. The very name evokes the ragtag spirit of the underdog that won this country its independence and built it into a superpower. We have always cheered for the guy who had to bend the rules a little in the name of the moral high groundóJohn Wayne and Dirty Harry, two uniquely American archetypes who defied authority in a land of laws. And what could be more American than that?

American. The word is pregnant with implications and responsibilities. To be American connotes far more than citizenship. Conversely, being un-American is a slur that carries weight only in this country. Iíve never heard someone labeled un-Swedish or un-German, and yet to be called un-American implies treason or atheism or worse. Nowhere but in American do we wear the badge of our national identity with such a laundry list of obligations. To be American means to be hard-working, morally upright, patriotic, capitalist, religious (in some circles) and yet tolerant of those who donít share our beliefs. We imagine ourselves a plain-spoken and direct people, united under one language and mostly similar culture. We look suspiciously on the moral relativists who try to tell us that there are no absolutes in this world. These values were drummed into me by family and school from the time I was a child. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, attended Church, was taught respect for authority, learned to distrust the counterculture of the Ď60ís and Ď70ís for their drugs and long hair and open defiance. In short, I was raised to be an American. In later years, I learned that shades of grey usually seeped in between the rigid absolutes of black and white, but in essence, I think most Americans still view these values as defining their national identity.

How then is that identity threatened? Language is a good place to start. For those who underestimate the importance of the English language in this debate, witness the outcry over the Spanish version of The Star Spangled Banner. While it may be easy to dismiss the outrage as xenophobic and misplaced, language is an essential component of who we are, how we communicate, what defines us. We have seen similar battles over native tongue in Quebec and France. During previous immigration booms, communities saw it as a patriotic duty to help immigrants assimilate. Institutionalized assimilation programs were plentiful and, with a few exceptions, immigrants joined the American community.

Assimilation seems to have acquired a negative connotation lately, which begs the question, "Whatís more importantóblending in or maintaining cultural roots?" I think we can find an appropriate middle ground, somewhere between total abandonment of native culture and unswerving allegiance to the mother country. Most of the Latinos with whom I work strive every day to navigate this middle ground, and that starts with language. They understand the subtle pressure to speak English over Spanish, and for the most part, they try.

Cultural ties may be another matter. During the recent World Cup soccer championship, every Latino I knew cheered for the Mexican team, and not one for Team USA. While sports may be little more than a metaphor in this context, it is a meaningful one. We expect, as Americans, immigrant groups to forswear old ties and to become one of us. If they want to be Americans, they should root for our teams, play by our rules, fight for our side. The high level of military enlistment by Latinos demonstrates such allegiance, so maybe the soccer devotion is merely an aberration that runs deeper than family and country.

I think the most troubling aspect of this recent wave of immigration is the assimilation question. Forget the political rhetoric about this being a matter of national security. I donít see terrorists lugging their biological or conventional payloads across miles of Arizona desert. Theyíd be spotted by Minutemen before they ever reached a worthwhile target. No, this is about perception. I donít believe itís racism; at least not overtly. I think itís economic and cultural. If Nazi Germany showed us anything, itís that economic strife requires a scapegoat, and, Bush administration optimism notwithstanding, I think many Americans find their economic situation tenuous at best. Instead of blaming outsourcing or downsizing or a ridiculously low minimum wage, they focus their outrage on the illegal immigrants who they see as flooding our hospitals and public schools and living off of our good nature. They donít seem to see the hypocrisy of American business dangling the job carrot in front of the collective Latino nose for years, no questions asked, and then suddenly pulling the rug out with a House bill that seeks to criminalize and deport them. And hereís where the public relations problem comes in. I can understand the immigrant outrage, the feeling of being conveniently used and then tossed aside like old trash; but the movement needs to understand one thing: Americans, who, I believe, are usually quite generous, will not tolerate demands being forced upon them by an angry mob who, at least on the surface, shows no allegiance to this country. Chanting Viva, Mexico while demanding a piece of the American dream demonstrates a cultural disconnect that most citizens find offensive, regardless of the legitimacy of the complaint. The backlash after the first march and the subsequent muting of angry rhetoric and more prominent display of American flags in the second march shows that someone at the top finally got the message. The question is, did they get it too late? I think the answers remains to be seen.

The fear and anger over illegal immigration will probably continue to fester just below the surface. Congress has failed to act this session, despite the issueís recent prominence. Legislators canít seem to find a balance between the will of the people and businessí need for cheap labor. As long as they fail to reconcile these two extremes, I suspect the status quo will remain. If a bright spot exists, however, it may lie in the flexibility of the American identity, which has always been more inclusive than we give it credit for. Ultimately, as second-generation immigrants begin to embrace our culture, which I believe they have begun to do already, the perceived threat to American identity will once again recede into the shadows. Until the next wave.