The Immigration Debate

Immigration is one of the hottest topics in the country today. The debates are furious, whether on the floor of Congress, or on the streets of the American countryside.

Most of these arguments, however, revolve around one of two commonplace stereotypes, both of which denigrate today's newcomers. The first claims that modern day immigrants are the cause of most of our problems: they are illegal, they commit crimes, they are just here for the benefits.

The second involves history and is more up my alley. It goes like this: the old immigrants (i.e. our parents or grandparents) were good folks, unlike the riffraff today. They weren't illegal, they became Americans, worked hard, and despite America's prejudices, they became good citizens.

My take is somewhat different. I perceive immigration -- no matter where or when it takes place -- as one of the greatest of all human dramas, both for the immigrant and for the host country.

Maybe I came to this because of my own lack of cosmopolitanism, but the idea of moving to a new land seems overwhelming to me. When I moved into a working class neighborhood in Chicago to do my dissertation, my adviser (who was co-trained in Anthropology) remarked that when you began a journey like that, it seemed like it took two weeks to discover where to buy the toothpaste.

Immigration is indeed a journey, and often a rough one. It causes an incredible -- sometimes unbearable -- strain on marriages, and on families. Husbands, unable to thrive in a difficult job market, abandon their loved ones to return home, or just move on. Children assimilate at different rates from their parents, dream different dreams, develop different wants and needs. They rebel, act out, and often leave.

Everything is a challenge. The great historian Ronald Takiki once pointed out just how much work it is for a newcomer to pay a utility bill. She or he has to figure out which, out of the incredible cluster of numbers, is the amount to be paid, then has to purchase a money order, has to decide which way to fold the bill, which crease to tear, then how to seal the envelope. Finally, a stamp has to be affixed, but where? This is no easy assignment, yet one most of us take for granted. Life for immigrants can be hard in so many ways, little as well as big.

It is also a trial for the host country, however. New immigrants do not speak the language, do not understand ways of life, or customs (which is why they seek out neighborhoods of their own, for comfort and familiarity). At best, these differences can make the new arrivals a nuisance, difficult to deal with in an incredible number of ways. At the very worst, odd numbers in their ranks commit crimes, some of them heinous, giving fodder to those who would close the doors to America. Thus, for the receiving land as well, the transition is difficult, filled with frustration and anger.

The fact remains, that all of this -- the good and the bad -- has been the American immigration experience since the beginning. Those who claim, as I noted in my intro, that their immigration was different from the modern one, more patriotic or pleasant in some way, are treating history selectively (I have already dealt with the issue of illegal immigration in a prior piece on this blog, "Illegal Aliens," April 26, 2010).

Did you read, for example, about that awful shooting? An out-of-work immigrant killed his employer after having been fired from his job. Approaching the supervisor in public, the newcomer -- who was also a loner, living all alone -- pulled out a .38 and put a bullet into the manager's neck, up close. Later, the foreign-born resident, who had been let go for dereliction of duty, claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy.

This story seems torn from today's headlines, to use an old cliche, but it actually took place in 1910. The gunman was an immigrant from Ireland (John J. Gallagher), and the victim was the mayor of New York City, William Gaynor, no less. What would Glenn Beck or Fox News have to say if that happened today, with Gallagher's 21st Century counterpart? But some immigrants, then and now, have a harder time adjusting, with the worst possible consequences. This, too, is part of that experience.

Or take the news released in the important periodical North American Review, in its September 1908 issue. In a lead article, New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham declared confidently that 50 percent of all the criminals in the city were Jewish. The piece, entitled "Foreign Criminals in New York," claimed that the ranks of this immigrant group included "burglars, firebugs, pickpockets and highway robbers," and that Semites were particularly prone to these activities because of their "ignorance of the language" (just as non-English speakers can be an issue to majority Americans today). Pointing out that America attracted "the predatory criminals of all nations," he also revealed a terrorist plot involving immigrants, the Serbian revolutionaries living in NYC who planned to assassinate European heads of state. Summing up, the head of the country's largest police force observed, "It is impossible to exaggerate the enormity of the offenses committed by these transplanted malefactors...." The commissioner argued, using these statistics and details, that the only realistic solution was to create a special secret police force, answerable only to the highest authorities, solely to deal with criminals in our homeland who came from foreign countries.

Bingham was, most likely, a WASP, upper-class bigot, but there was also some truth to his argument. While his figures were wildly exaggerated, in reality, some Jewish immigrants did adapt criminal careers. Also immigrants from Italy, Poland, Slovakia and every other country (one of the great Chicago bootleggers, e.g. was Polack Joe Saltis, actually a Slovak). The fact is, faced with a life of terrible toil, horrible living conditions, and an early death, some newcomers turned to criminal activities as a way out. Then and now.

Do these stories demonstrate that the Irish or Jews were likely criminals? No, not in the slightest. No more than current events say about the recent generations of newcomers. Violence and criminal activities are rare for immigrants of many different generations, compared with the overwhelming majority who come here seeking positive goals. The fact that such incidents occurred, therefore, indicates two propositions: first, and most important, that the migration story is complex, filled with both feel good and not so positive stories; this was a gritty issue to deal with on all sides, and always will be. We should not expect anything different today, nor underestimate what both our nation and the newcomers will have to go through to make immigration work in our own time.

Second, these accounts indicate why reports of criminal activities by this segment of the population have to be kept in proportion. While law enforcement should and must deal with all criminals fully and firmly, that should not detract from the larger story. If you want to close the doors to this country because a few Latin Americans committed horrific acts, you really have to accept Bingham's advice -- he was the nation's leading security expert of his era -- and agree that the country should have similarly dealt with all those Jews, Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Lithuanians, etc. After all, they presented the same, and even a worse menace to America in those years than immigrants do today. Your forefathers, in other words, shouldn't have been let in, by this logic.

The best modern day example I can think of that captures the turmoil of immigration exists in Brooklyn. Everyone has heard about the Russian Mafia out of Brighton Beach; if nothing else, they are the featured villain in numerous movies. I have absolutely no doubt that this situation is real, malevolent, and terrifying.

But my late mother lived two subway stops from that district, and I visited there often. Brighton Beach is also a thriving neighborhood, filled with families, with mothers and kids shopping and going to school. And make no mistake, this is immigration personified; every pizza parlor is surrounded by storefronts where all the signs are in Russian.

This illustrates the reality of this issue. Americans who complain that immigration creates difficulties are partially right; that is the nature of people entering a new environment. Immigrants suffering from a hard existence are also part of this reality, as is their success against odds. Migration, in other words, is a trial for all sides, or as I originally put it, one of the greatest dramas the human race can experience.

Is it worth it? In my view, there is nothing that has ever strengthened America -- and continues to do so -- more than the constant influx of immigrants to our society, with their energy and ideas. But this should not be glamorized. It comes with a price, for everyone concerned. And always has.

Immigration is not easy, for any of the parties involved. But it is worth the struggle, the pain and anguish, if we want to see America continue to remain a great and powerful nation. And above all, if we want it to continue to be America.