THE scene was a mini-market in Boston's ethnically diverse South End on a Saturday morning. Customers were picking up the morning newspapers.
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.
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.
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."