America’s immigration crisis has been developing for many years. The cover story for The New American magazine for June 2, 1986 warned: “Illegal immigration is reaching crisis proportions.” A story in the same magazine’s September 19, 2005 issue observed: “Now it has reached crisis proportions, and TNA has since shown how the immigration invasion fits the broader objective of eliminating our borders entirely in a hemispheric merger.”
Proposals for resolving this crisis differ widely. On January 7, 2004, President Bush announced his so-called “new temporary worker program that will match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.” He continued: “This program will offer legal status, as temporary workers, to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States, and to those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here.” Bush’s proposal to extend amnesty to illegal immigrants was repackaged as an immigration reform bill sponsored by senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) Though as a “solution” for the illegal immigration crisis, it only triggered a predictable “amnesty rush,” as illegal immigrants surged across the border to take advantage of the offer. The April 16, 2004 Washington Times reported: “The number of illegal aliens being apprehended on the southwestern border has jumped 25 percent in the first three months of 2004 compared with last year....”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you the president’s [amnesty] speech was the catalyst for lots of folks to make their way north … in order to get what they accurately believe to be amnesty,” commented Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus and a leading congressional champion of immigration control.
However, as arguments are waged over how best to stem the tide of illegal immigration, and to apprehend and deport (the constitutionalist position) or “offer legal status to” (the Bush-McCain-Kennedy position) illegal immigrants within our borders, a wide range of terms is apt to be tossed about. And some of these terms often tend to obfuscate, rather than clarify, the various arguments. Consider what the phrases “ethnic diversity,” “bilingual” (or “multilingual”), “multicultural,” and “assimilation” mean to you. Even the phrase “nation of immigrants” (are we, or are we not?) has created disagreement.
As we learned in writing class, words have denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word or phrase, whereas connotation is the suggestive meaning of a word or phrase, often determined by its context. Furthermore, the connotation an individual draws from a phrase is heavily influenced by that person’s life’s experiences.
For example, I spent the first 24 years of my life in the New York metropolitan area (the unquestioned number-one destination for most European immigrants) during a period that spanned from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Then, another 17 years in the Boston area, another region that has experienced very heavy immigration. Furthermore, my elementary school history books often bore titles such as “Western Civilization” or “Western Christian Civilization.” Combining the two, imagine looking at our American culture as the end product of an assembly line starting in ancient Greece, moving on to ancient Rome, and then, as the Roman Empire was supplanted by many independent European states, being assembled all over Europe until something called Western Civilization emerged. Then picture that civilization being carried, along with boxes, barrels, and suitcases filled with various goods and personal belongings by millions of immigrants, aboard a steady stream of ships arriving in Jamestown, Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts, and eventually, Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
However, like Baskin Robbins, that culture came in 31 flavors, and, during the early part of my life, I sampled most of them. I cannot remember a time when I did not hear grandparents, shoemakers, and pizzeria owners speaking Italian, neighbors speaking German or Hungarian, and delicatessen and coffee shop owners speaking Yiddish or Greek. Everyone wore green to school on St. Patrick’s Day, even though the nickname of my high school athletic teams was “the Polish Ironmen.” And one particularly humorous memory of a Puerto Rican coworker in New York years ago wearing a green plastic derby on St. Patrick’s Day always brings forth a smile!
All of the foregoing constitutes my idea of “ethnic diversity” and “multiculturalism.” (I suppose the opposite of ethnic diversity would be ethnic monotony.) As a result, I have come to find those areas that have scarcely been touched by immigrant culture to be about as interesting as a Baskin Robbins that sells only one flavor — vanilla!
Another term that surfaces frequently in the discussion of immigration is “bilingualism.” Many of our founding fathers (Benjamin Franklin comes to mind) were bilingual, or even multilingual. My grandparents were bilingual. They could speak Italian, as well as English, though they conversed almost exclusively in English. My father, however, refused to learn Italian, because he was taught that one must lose all vestiges of foreign culture to become a properly “assimilated” American. Consequentially, my knowledge of foreign languages was limited to a little textbook Latin and Spanish and, when I visited Italy in 2001, I had to rely on a Berlitz phrase book to communicate a few words in Italian. That presented little problem, however, since most of the Italians spoke English (and probably French and Spanish, as well.) Unlike my family, they had not been taught that there was something “unpatriotic” in being multilingual.
Unfortunately, those who would break down our borders have often co-opted the language or exploited our natural sentimentality about the Ellis Island experience to advocate the removal of sensible restrictions on immigration. For example, John F. Kennedy, in his book A Nation of Immigrants, did an excellent job of chronicling the movement of those who helped transplant our Western culture from Europe to America, but then used the book to advocate major changes in our immigration quotas. That effort was realized under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. As Samuel Francis wrote in “Immigration’s Real Victims” in The New American magazine for November 11, 1996:
“During the congressional debates on that legislation … its liberal sponsors argued repeatedly that it would not result in large increases in immigration and that the immigrants who arrived because of it would not alter the traditional ethnic composition of the American population from its historic European base to a Third World base. This was explicitly stated by Edward and Robert Kennedy, its chief sponsors in the Senate, as well as by Representative Emmanuel Celler in the House, President Lyndon Johnson, and various Cabinet officials. Within a decade, however, they were proved to have been wrong, as conservative critics of the act predicted, and the consequences are with us to this day.
"The 30 million immigrants who have arrived in the last quarter century are overwhelmingly from non-European Third World societies, and as a whole they bring with them many of the ideas, habits, and manners that make their native countries Third World in character….”
The social engineers have now used terms in ways that discount the benefits of cultural exchange between native and immigrant cultures. “Bilingual” education has come to mean that parallel classes in Spanish are offered to Hispanic students who do not learn English. This is a distortion of both language and common sense. Obviously true bilingual or multilingual education, wherein Hispanic students would learn English, American students learn Spanish, and both learn yet another language, such as French or Latin or Greek, would produce citizens better equipped to study the classics and give them valuable career skills.
What about multiculturalism? Some extremists advocate that newcomers to America should be content to live in self-imposed ethnic ghettos where they remain ignorant of mainstream American culture. Obviously, such an arrangement benefits no one. Society is an organic component and the exchange of ideas in a common language is highly beneficial. As is receiving an education that imparts what Professor Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) calls a "cultural lingua franca." Basically, that means we can all discuss our nation’s problems effectively because what we have learned in common gives us a common perspective.
However (and this is a big “however”) because many who have sought to destroy our culture and national sovereignty have used a false connotation of “multiculturalism” to break down our nation’s institutions, it does not necessarily follow that those of us fond of sampling multiple cultures — yet who still cherish American culture — should advocate some sort of enforced sterile, mono-cultural standard. The Germans attempted to do that during the Nazi era, banning “non-German” influences such as American jazz music.
Those of us who have experienced New York’s Little Italy, Newark’s Portuguese Ironbound section, San Francisco’s Chinatown, or the Greek sponge-diving docks of Tarpon Springs, Florida, would not wish to live in a world where the only cultural diversity to be found is between a Whopper and a Big Mac!
With a little more attention paid to the semantics of the discussion, we can enjoy the cultural contributions made by legal immigrants without undue concern, while defending the integrity of our borders against illegal immigration.