The New Immigration or the End of the Melting Pot

by Paolo von Schirach

October 24, 2006

WASHINGTON – The current immigration debate, well meaning in some aspects, acrimonious in others, misses the qualitative changes and irreversible transformations to the US society brought about by the Latino immigration waves that have already changed America and are likely to change it even more in the years to come. 

The main irreversible transformation is that the old “melting pot” metaphor that, up to the 1960s, was a fair representation of the ability of the US to absorb and homogenize varied waves of immigrants, no longer applies. The US has ceased to be this Anglo-Saxon cultural blender that overtime digested, homogenized and integrated millions of other immigrants coming from different backgrounds, thereby “converting” them into true Americans.

The US is increasingly becoming Hispanic or Latino and Spanish speaking. In turn this qualitative change has led and will lead overtime to further transformations that will involve the core of what America is and what it thinks of itself.

The current immigration debate involving the Congress, the White House and now also state legislatures and local governments is mostly about recreating some control on what are in truth broken borders. It is also about providing some path to legalization of status to the many millions who de facto reside, live and work in the US. However, whatever the approach eventually chosen for the illegal aliens:  total or partial amnesty, fines, fast track to proper immigrant status or slow track, the reality is that massive deportation, theoretically possible under current law, is so unlikely that we can rule it out as a policy option. So, most likely, these millions are here to stay. 

Furthermore, even if, under the most optimistic scenario, the US manages to regain full control of its borders, thereby halting completely any future flow of illegal aliens into US territory, there will still be, in the decades to come a significant streaming of legal immigrants from South America. This flow, current and projected, coupled with the transformative impact of the many millions that are already here, legally or otherwise, has changed America for good. Because of the impact of these massive numbers, more changes away from the old Anglo-Saxon paradigm are inevitable in the years to come.

The qualitative difference between the Latino wave and previous large immigration waves is that most of the other immigrants ?in particular the Europeans– came to the US with an awareness, implicit or not, of having permanently severed their ties with their countries of origin. Sure, in many cases they would retain, at least the immigrant generation, a specific identity within the American ethnic mosaic. So, one could easily recognize Polish Americans as different from Italian Americans. But, by and large, those who came to the US and stayed here made a total commitment to become Americans and to place any residual tie or connection with their country of origin: linguistic, cultural or culinary, on a much lower tier.

In most cases the immigrants were unable or unwilling to preserve their linguistic identity and pass it on to the following generations. (Let us consider that many of them were semi literate or illiterate within their own cultures. Thus they did not have the tools to preserve cultural complexities that they did not fully master).

Therefore, the kaleidoscope of exotic names that dots the American landscape has value for the ethnographers and historians that can identify Norwegian, Irish, Greek or German origins. But the individuals themselves, with a few exceptions, usually can barely indicate that the great grand parents came from somewhere in Ireland or Germany. Mixed marriages among immigrants confused the picture even further. Italians intermarried with the Irish and their offspring later on with others. For a third or fourth generation American today who can easily be in part German, Swedish, Russian or Greek, it is almost impossible to determine a meaningful national origin and to have strong feelings about it.

The basic difference between these old waves of immigrants and the Latino waves rests in geography. The Europeans by and large came with one way third class tickets on overcrowded steamers. Once they had landed they were psychologically and materially committed to a fast track to integration in order to better their chances of improving their lot vis a vis the other Americans. In most cases, going back to the country of origin was out of the question. Emigration was final. Thus, embracing the new world, in all it aspects, including culture and values, was necessary to have a chance to succeed in it.

The Latinos as of many years come by bus, by car or by air. For the most part, even if we take out the many that cannot cross official borders for fear of apprehension, except for the very poor, they have the opportunity to travel back and forth at least occasionally, some rather frequently. To think of Polish peasants transplanted in Illinois at the turn of the last century taking an even occasional summer vacation to visit with relatives back in the village is preposterous except for the extremely successful few who had become really rich in America.

On top of that, nowadays, even for the relatively poor Latinos, phone contact with relatives back home is the norm rather than the exception, while the gigantic remittance flows from the US into Central and South America, indicate continues involvement with families and communities in the countries of origin.

And the retention of the Spanish language as the primary language is an indication as to the fact that these immigrants do not have the same urgency to integrate and in some fashion forget about their origins. They see no need for this.

The logic of large numbers in most cases may help in shaping attitudes. No need to learn English fast in communities where the Latino population is the majority. Indeed, at least in some communities in the US it is possible to have a perfectly normal life in terms of work and opportunity without any need to acquire real English fluency, something that certainly was not the case, even in the most ethnic states, even at the height of the European immigration waves. 

Certainly there have been many large ethnic islands within the United States and many immigrants could get by with little or no English. But the understanding of all was that English was the official language of the country and that all official transactions would be conducted in English. No equivalent at that time of the now ubiquitous “press 2 for Spanish”, in any telephone help line, let alone taking driver license tests in languages other than English or the notion of officially sanctioned bilingual education.

While we would like to think that becoming an American is not about ethnicity, as demonstrably there is no “American” ethnic group, but about the voluntary embracing a set of values, it is a fact that historically most immigrants have been economic immigrants, driven by need rather than ideals. However, and this is crucial, whether they liked it or not, the old immigrants were “forced” to buy into the prevailing Anglo-Saxon political culture and become soon homogenized Americans, thus quickly shedding their origins and embracing America.

When political leaders today affirm that the strength of America lies in the diverse backgrounds of its immigrant population, they should know that this diversity is in fact rather superficial. They know that they are referring to the descendants of those Italian, German, Russian and Greek immigrants who, while they may have retained traces of their distinctiveness, at this point are homogenized Americans. Kohl, Lantos, Giuliani, Voinovich, Kerry, Tenet, Dukakis and even thick accented Schwarzenegger, just to stay within the sphere of people involved in public policy, are all ethnic names. Yet, these “including the foreign born– are Americans with a capital A. But, ten years from now, will we say the same about the Mercado, Martinez, Lopez and Rodriguez who will be the mayors and eventually national leaders of America? The difference is that the Latinos did not have the same pressure to integrate and become homogenized.

The fundamental qualitative difference between old and new immigration is that the new economic immigrants of today, most of them from Latin America, appreciate the opportunity to have a better life in the USA. However, to the extent that they can easily maintain an active connection with their countries of origin, (something that those who came along with the previous immigration waves could not do), they do not seem to have the urgency to totally and quickly transform themselves into “Anglos”.

If, while preserving the old ties, they would voluntarily choose to embrace the values of their adopted country, this would be a genuine achievement of multiculturalism. But, realistically, most immigrants will not spend sleepless nights poring over the Federalist Papers and other tomes on the Constitution in order to critically understand its underlying values.

Without the perception that, in order to have a normal life, they need to let themselves be absorbed by the new society, most people will tend to their private affairs. They will be guided by the principles that they acquired in their formative years. And, in the case of these new waves of immigrants, we cannot rest assured as to the fact that those value systems and beliefs will be the same as those that are prevalent among other Americans, simply because their backgrounds are different and their socialization took place in a different context.

And herein lays the challenge. America has worked reasonably well so far because a recognizable political culture has been preserved over more than two hundred years through a process that caused total outsiders to become integrated into this mainstream in a relatively short time. The substantial recent inflow of millions of people from nearby Mexico, Central and South America who bring different values and who see neither the obligation nor the need to subscribe to this political culture will bring about substantial qualitative change. This change will provoke new debates about what is it that we mean by “being an American”.

True, the notion that all the descendants of the old European waves have an unflinching, clear understanding as to what are the American values that they theoretically subscribe to is ludicrous. Indeed, many do not. But, at least in general, they cannot look at alternatives that derive from other perspectives that coexist in their universe. However, the lukewarm feelings about the distinctiveness of America among many descendants of older immigrants, if anything, complicates the problem, as it does not present to the new immigrants a clear picture of the value system that they should absorb.

America is a rather unique country that cannot point to a strong ethnic, religious or cultural identity. The political culture and the assumption that all of those who joined in share it has been the glue that kept this complex machinery together. We have to face the fact that this glue may not be as strong a bonding agent as it used to be.

And we have to face this fact now, when, for the first time in our complex history, we have a large chunk of new immigrants who may very well live here but who are not pressed to truly join in. This does not automatically make them disloyal or dangerous. But it makes them different. Just like the previous waves, these are predominantly economic immigrants. But, unlike the immigrants of old, they did not and will not go through the cultural indoctrination, benign or forced, willfully accepted or suffered by millions of others before them.

They are different. Their large and growing numbers will affect the culture and the values of the broader society in which they live and eventually they will radically transform it, its value system and core beliefs. How this transformation will change us all is impossible to predict. But America will never be the same.

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