The New Americans
Commentary: Still a vaunted destination, the US is the immigrant Olympics, and new citizens are gold medalists. THE NEW IMMIGRANTS
THE scene was a mini-market in Boston's ethnically diverse South End on a Saturday morning. Customers were picking up the morning newspapers.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Two young men from Uganda stood by the cash register. For unknown reasons one of them was loudly condemning the United States as materialistic, unfriendly, dirty, and wasteful. He blustered for several minutes while people avoided him.
Then an elderly man in a neat, dark suit looked up at him, shrugged, and with a Yiddish echo said, "So, leave."
It was as if he had raised a small American flag and given it one quick, patriotic wave.
The irony is that despite well-known excesses and shortcomings, the United States of America remains the premier destination of the world's immigrants. Instead of coming and leaving, they arrive and stay by the millions. The exercise of liberty, as a political and historical fact, still beckons most clearly from the American landscape despite significant changes in immigration laws.
Few newcomers want to leave. Grumble as they may, drive cabs as many do, they cluster together in communities and businesses for friendship and survival, and speak English hesitantly or not at all. But they stay and learn the irresistible ways of America.
Not surprisingly, voices are being raised that there is enough of "them" now, either legally or illegally. Over the last decade or so, too many immigrants have arrived, say the critics. The immigrants aren't assimilating; they cost too much, add to a bulging population, don't vote, and don't share good, old American values. They have become an environmental problem. Snatch the welcome mat away, slam the door, say the critics.
In the years between 1880 and 1924, the ideal behind the US motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) was much easier to embrace. Those who had come to the US prior to 1880 could afford to be magnanimous and establish a national policy of welcoming the expectant masses stepping off the crowded boats at Ellis Island.
From New York to California, there was a swath of frontier opportunity waiting for anybody willing to work hard. Concepts of overpopulation, environmental degradation, air quality, and recycling were half a century away. The United States was a vast bounty for individuals, despite having been a nation that acted with duplicity by defeating native Indian tribes and shunting them to reservations.
In the peak European immigration years between 1880 and 1924, 26 million people arrived in the US, making this movement from many countries to one country the largest migration of people in world history.
American success stories of immigrants are legendary. In fact, it is the golden promise of opportunity that still attracts immigrants here. Last year, a record 1.8 million immigrants were granted permanent residency. According to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, more than a million were already living here and were given permanent status under the amnesty program for illegal aliens.
Because of the 1990 Immigration Law, immigration quotas will rise this year by more than 40 percent. One million immigrants a year can now enter the US legally. According to the US Census Bureau, most will follow family and friends to California, Florida, Texas, and New York, states with the most concern about immigration.