Thankful for our immigrants
by Jeff Jacoby
I'M NOT AGAINST IMMIGRATION, said the prominent American political figure -- a media personality who made his mark as a writer and polemicist long before he got involved in political affairs -- but the immigrants of today just don't measure up to those who came before them. They're not well educated. They don't bother to learn English. And at the rate they multiply, there will soon be more of them than there are of us.
Pat Buchanan on the Mexicans pouring into Texas and California? No, Benjamin Franklin on the Germans pouring into Pennsylvania.
"Measures of great temper are necessary with the Germans," wrote Franklin in May 1753, since "those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation, and . . . 'tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they entertain. . . . Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the province, two are entirely German. . . . Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch" -- i.e., Deutsch -- "and English; the signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which . . . are allowed in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters."
It was necessary, concluded Franklin, to cut back the immigration of Germans into Pennsylvania. Otherwise "they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."
No pastime is more quintessentially American than fretting about the low quality and high number of immigrants. History doesn't record what the Pilgrims thought of the settlers who stepped off the boat that came after the Mayflower, but no doubt they grumbled about how the newcomers weren't up to the caliber of those who arrived first.
We can forgive Franklin for imagining that the "most ignorant" German immigrants of his day were indigestible invaders who would wreck the Colonies' cohesion. In 1753, the American melting pot had scarcely begun to operate. A century later, the assimilation of immigrants was a plain and obvious fact.
Thus in 1888, Theodore Roosevelt could praise James Bryce's "The American Commonwealth" for having "thoroughly understood that instead of the old American stock being 'swamped' by immigration, it has absorbed the immigrants and remained nearly unchanged."
Yet over and above every other concern, those who would slam the Golden Door shut persist in worrying that immigrants no longer blend into the American mainstream.
What Franklin said of the Germans in the 18th century, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge said of the Russians, Poles, and Italians in the 19th. "Races with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated," he called them, "and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States." When the Supreme Court upheld the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1889, it observed that "it seems impossible for them to assimilate with our own people or to make any change in their habits of modes of living." A century later, endorsing California's Proposition 187, the conservative journal National Review would write that popular resentment of immigrants is a mark of how "the American nation resists its own dissolution."
But it's a bum rap. Immigration is not a catalyst for disunity. Most immigrants want nothing more than to be thought of as "real" Americans, and they show it in countless ways.
The American Dream of owning a home, for example, is alive and well among immigrants. Half of all foreign-born Americans live in homes they own. According to a Census Bureau survey in 1996, 76 percent of immigrants who came to the United States before 1970 were homeowners, compared with only 70 percent of native-born citizens.
Immigrants learn our language. At the beginning of the 20th century, 3 out of 4 immigrants spoke some English. By 1990, the ratio was 11 out of 12. Within 10 years of arriving in the United States, more than 75 percent of immigrants speak English with high proficiency. And among the children of immigrants, the use of English is almost universal.
Nothing fires the melting pot like marriage, and immigrants marry across racial and ethnic lines. Of married Asian immigrant women, to take one striking example, 18.6 percent were wedded to non-Asians in 1994. Their children and grandchildren were even more likely to "marry out." More than 29 percent of second-generation Asian women and more than 41 percent in the third generation had non-Asian husbands. Could anything attest more beautifully to the reality of America's motto? E pluribus unum -- out of many, one.
In an era of plunging unemployment and soaring cynicism, we need immigrants more than ever. They are the secret of our success, these hardworking risk-takers who so esteem our way of life that they are willing to uproot themselves from their homelands to live among us. The Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth 379 years ago. What a debt of gratitude we owe them, and all the immigrants who followed in their wake.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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