Immigration in the Now: What to do with a Pot of Stew

Borders open, borders closed - it's the squeaky hinges of our immigration debate, our country's rusty door that just keeps up an unrelenting swinging. In the midst of our national debate about whether we should let folks in or keep them out, it's worth thinking about what the best conditions are for immigrants to assimilate into a new country. We've gone from the melting pot concept to a pot of stew, and it's time to rescue it before it burns on the hearth. With this in mind, I'd like to present to you a case study on the matter - my mother.

Born in Bolivia, Mom says that she has an American heart. She arrived here legally under the Reagan administration, after conquering the lengthy paperwork meant to assess her ability to contribute towards our national effort at existing. Not that that was in question: she had worked at high levels of government in her own country. She still started low on the totem pole when she arrived.

There was no densely populated, country-specific immigrant community to welcome my mother to the West Coast. These days, cities like Washington, D.C. have many neighborhoods that display earmarks of strong Hispanic demographics. The DMV is famous for its pupusa-making populations of Central Americans, communities that are sanctuaries for new arrivals who might be on the hunt for anything familiar. Mom's only Bolivians were her own family. And the lot of them had to deal with a bunch of Mexicans down the street and a whole boatload of white people that they'd read about and seen on TV.

According to her, that's how she learned to be American.

She, and her brother, and her sister, and her sister, and her sister, and her brother, and (we have lots of cousins, folks) the many people arriving in America's little towns at the time, had what she thinks was the ultimate advantage of being submerged in the then-American culture. In a dizzying reversal of the heavily-touted language immersion classes we like to enroll our kids in, my uncles and aunts and mom dumped themselves into a country and had to learn on the run. English was hard, and you picked it up. Many places in the U.S. now are a far cry from Mom's experience: Miami, for example, is so saturated with Cuban culture that you might never learn English and live life quite easily.

But here's the hard question: while the comfort of La Pequeña Habana for incoming immigrants is certainly undeniable, as is the Ethiopian community in Silver Spring, Maryland, and many such other immigrant communities around the United States, is more immigration, and single-demographic-heavy communities, what we really need right now as a country?

Much as immigration is valuable and adds immeasurably to our diversity of identity in America, schisms and shifts across the political and racial divide seem to indicate that this might be a good time to let the earth settle across the nation. Certainly where race is concerned, the opportunity to slow the influx of new immigrants might be worthwhile, and here's why - I've noticed that the children of new immigrants do well in this culture, but often their parents remain stuck in their original culture through the close-knit communities that have gathered here and settled down. As my mother once observed, the trick is to absorb the best parts of the new culture and retain the best parts of your own. It's hard to know what the best parts of a culture are if you're not very well immersed in it.

The formation of dense communities of immigrants throughout the U.S. is not unique to our time period - heck, I think everyone's got a Germantown or a Chinatown somewhere. From Revolutionary War times to present day, new arrivals tend to concentrate and stick together. But divisions of "English" or "German" or "Irish" or "Polish" or "Scottish" blended over time into America's "white" during a time of nationalism, when the country focused internally and not outwardly towards the worldwide stage.

Right now, that internal nationalism is our new president's focus, and that might not be so bad where immigrant assimilation is concerned. As my (extremely white, Pennsylvania-born and German-descended) dad often says, there are a couple different Americas in this nation. There's ample room for the cultural expressions of all nationalities coloring the map of these United States. That being said, perhaps it's time for a few of those Americas to boil down into one good pot of stew. And after all, everyone knows the stew gets better when you let the ingredients mingle overnight.