Posted on August 21, 2007 in Washington Watch

I was just in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a former coal-mining town that generated national attention for its attempt to enforce an ordinance making it a punishable offense to house, employ or serve “illegal” immigrants. The Hazleton ordinance was recently struck down by federal court, but the political discourse of some in that community has already moved beyond “illegals” to a crude nativism with complaints about immigrants and their “foreign” language and “foreign ways.”

Knowing Hazleton and its history, all of this is quite disturbing. Though small, it has for a century been home to dozens of immigrant communities. My mother grew up in that region, learning a smattering of Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, German, and bit of Yiddish. She and other Hazletonians not only learned each other’s languages but cooked each other’s foods and learned of their cultures, and so it is strange to hear their descendants railing about the “foreignness” of others. A bit of history is in order.

The American immigrant experience in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was unique. While each immigrant group can tell a story of hardships endured including cruel taunts, exclusion, or nativist violence, there was an absorptive quality to the American identity that made it both powerful and successful, as diverse ethnic groups became Americans and, therefore, different. At the same time, the American identity and culture were also transformed and became both different and richer.

One decade ago at a conference on ethnicity and identity politics, a number of leaders from ethnic communities gathered to reflect on the experiences of our respective ethnic communities and the process of transformation and inclusion that brought us all into the American mainstream. In addition to the genius of the American idea, we noted other factors that contributed to and even “forced” this process of assimilation.

There was, for example, the “cost of separation.” When immigrants came in the 19th and early 20th century the costs of returning (many hoped to do so but never did) were great. Travel was expensive, difficult and long. Communication was also difficult. And so, to a great extent, even those who came freely and therefore could return, did not. Those who fled persecution and hardship (the Irish, eastern Europeans, Jews and others) could not: for many, the separation was irrevocable and complete.

The traumatic events of the 20th century also played a decisive role in both enforcing separation from the home country and creating pressure to assimilate. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the Communist conquests of one half of Europe and Asia interacted in complex ways to shape the story of assimilation. New refugee populations arrived with little hope of returning. The hypernationalism and nativist backlash that grew in response to these traumatic events, coupled with rigid immigration quotas imposed on several groups, contributed to the sense of separation and accentuated for many the urgency of becoming “American” – even at the expense of shedding all attributes of “foreignness.”

That was the downside. The upside was a broader sense of community and identity as diverse communities joined the “American cause.”

The centripetal force created by these factors produced, by the 1950s, the myth of the “melting pot” and was reflected in the media and pop culture depictions of the ideal America and American family. But this did not last long.

By the 1960s and into the early 1970s, the civil rights movement and the counter cultural currents that grew out of the anti-Vietnam War movement combined to produce a change. The civil rights movement spawned a cultural nationalist identity in the African American community, and awoke, as a byproduct, identity politics among the previously quiescent or silenced ethnic communities. During this period the movement of hyphenated ethnic-Americans developed. And over the past four decades these groups, at once proud of their American identity and protective of their ethnic heritage, flourished.

Today, new challenges exist.

There was a comparatively massive influx of immigrants in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s driven by a combination of factors: a relaxation of the immigration quota system, added diversity due to the immigration “lottery,” family reunification, specialized preferences for immigrants possessing technology skills desired by U.S. employers, and new refugees and asylum seekers. Further changes resulted from a dramatic increase in undocumented workers due to economic dislocation and opportunity-seekers. Completing the perfect storm are the demands of the U.S. economy for labor, and an Immigration and Naturalization Service that is broken and chronically short-staffed to the point of dysfunction.

Today, the percentage of immigrants to the overall population of the U.S. is less than it was during the early part of the 20th century.

But the situation is somewhat different than that of the last century. Due to greater wealth and dramatic advances in technology, immigrants are no longer cut off from their countries and cultures of origin. Travel is relatively inexpensive and available, communication is nearly instantaneous, and the proliferation of foreign language television stations – and newspapers via internet – have allowed for many to feel as if they “never left home.”

To be sure, a backlash complete with ugly nativist undertones has been brewing. Some question whether America is losing its identity and whether the ties that bind us together as a nation are in danger of unraveling. While questions ought to be asked, the answers given by intolerant nativists are ahistorical and prompted more by insecurity than fact.

In reality, the cultural identity of America has always been a “smorgasbord.” Being “American” was never the province of one ethnic group. And as each group became American, the very concept of “American” itself was expanded. As each new wave of immigrants has “become American,” our culture and politics have grown richer.

We Americans are not and never have been the stereotype projected in 1950s popular culture. When we are secure enough to embrace this richness, we will be stronger for it.

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