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The New Americans

Commentary: Still a vaunted destination, the US is the immigrant Olympics, and new citizens are gold medalists. THE NEW IMMIGRANTS

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Carrying Capacity Network, a nonprofit organization, says that the US population is the fastest-growing of any industrialized nation in the world, adding nearly 3 million people each year. Immigrants today come mostly from Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, and African countries.

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In the 1900s, immigration flowed from European countries; the peak years were the early 1900s, when 8.8 million Germans, Italians, English, Irish, Scots, Scandinavians, and others left economic hardships for the promise of the New World.

When immigration tapered off in the 1920s, the natural inclination of the newcomers to resist quick assimilation and stay together was challenged by the sheer openness and vivacity of American culture. Without a steady flow of people from the old country, ethnic enclaves loosened up; many second-generation immigrants shed all the ways of the old world for success in the New World.

The difference today is the huge number of immigrants from one country or region who stay together in the US for support and economic survival. Business monopolies have evolved from these ethnic networks.

In metropolitan New York, for example, the Department of Consumer Affairs estimates that more than 40 percent of the gas stations are owned by Punjabi Sikhs from India. In Los Angeles, many gas stations and grocery stores are owned by Koreans. Immigrants arriving in New York from Korea can use a 500-page Korean business directory.

In California, immigrants and illegal aliens from Mexico no longer come just as seasonal farm workers; they come to stay, and they are joined by their families. They work in fast-food restaurants, car washes, laundries, hospitals, small factories, and hotels.

A study done last year by the Center for United States-Mexico Studies at the University of California in San Diego concluded that "The shift from a Mexican immigrant population dominated by transient `lone male' agricultural workers to a much more socially heterogeneous, year-round, urban dwelling immigrant community is unlikely to be reversed."

What is also unlikely to be reversed is the debate over the changing nature of American culture. As cities and states become increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-racial and white, Anglo-Saxon people are no longer the overwhelming majority, what is the American mainstream, in a cultural sense? Miami, for instance, has certainly as much Cuban culture as it does American.

What may evolve in the US is a "pluralistic assimilation" in which no group dominates American culture and all groups have equal access to economic and political power. The result could be that all racial groups maintain a separate identity but are part of a new kind of American "mainstream" defined more by shared contemporary values and less by historical roots.

Former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis may have stated a suitable guideline for the politics of the next century that will be triggered by increased immigration:

"Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty."