Saturday, July 21, 2007

Unwarranted fears still hijack immigration debate

By Eddie Garcia
San Jose Mercury News
Article Launched:07/20/2007 01:31:28 AM PDT

In his book about immigration, a prominent American writer and thinker cautioned that American principles are "endangered by the present state of our current naturalization laws." Although this cautionary statement is consistent with the thought of anti-immigrant commentators Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan, neither one can take credit for its authorship.

The author is Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of Morse Code and staunch supporter of the anti-immigrant American "Know-Nothing" Party. In 1854, he published "Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States Through Foreign Immigration," creating fear about the damaging effect immigration would have on American culture. With continued immigration, he warned, our institutions would be overrun by foreign influences and cease to exist within a generation. History would prove him wrong.

Pandering to fear isn't new in our nation's perpetual debate about immigration. In the 1850s, the "danger" came from Ireland. Today, the "threat" to our way of life comes from Mexico and points south. Unfortunately, despite the need for thoughtful public policy discussion on immigration, the U.S. Senate recently acquiesced to a new generation of fear peddlers and allowed that discussion to die on the Senate floor. The Senate missed the lesson to be learned from the false alarm clanged by Morse and the Know-Nothings during the 1850s - primarily that American culture isn't based on ethnicity and won't easily disappear due to the introduction of new people into our country.

When one thinks of American culture, a few things come to mind - "The Star-Spangled Banner," baseball, Fourth of July parades. However, these icons are merely symbols of our culture. The values espoused by our Founding Fathers form the basis for true American culture. Thomas Jefferson's eloquent words explain it best - being American is having the opportunity to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The freedoms guaranteed by these powerful words allow our cultural icons to exist.

Despite over 150 years of steady immigration, the culture born from Jefferson's words is still firmly in place. After fear of Irish immigrants subsided by the end of the 19th century, new fears arose about the Chinese, Italians, Germans and Eastern Europeans. In each instance, the "threat" of our nation's cultural demise faded as soon as the new arrivals inhaled the fresh air of freedom and opportunity. Within a generation, children of these immigrants sang the national anthem, watched baseball and celebrated the Fourth of July.

Some argue that today's immigrants (i.e., Mexicans) are somehow different than their European predecessors. The purveyors of fear tell us that the proximity of Mexico causes the newly arrived, and their children, to maintain loyalty to their homeland. And, they warn, the sheer number of new entrants (documented and undocumented) from the south is overwhelming. These arguments just don't hold true.

Not a single American political leader of Mexican ancestry - Clinton Cabinet member Henry Cisneros, presidential hopeful Bill Richardson or Bush Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, to name a few - has proposed the dissolution of the U.S. Constitution in favor of the Mexican Constitution. Moreover, at the pinnacle of immigration in 1910, 14 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born. According to the most recent census, that number is now 11 percent, including undocumented immigrants.

By raising fears about "amnesty," 21st-century anti-immigrant fear mongers have hijacked the debate, bringing thoughtful public policy discussions to a grinding halt. During one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired the nation by exposing fear as a major barrier to progress. As a nation, we responded to the Great Depression by pushing fear aside.

If we are to develop meaningful public policy on immigration that addresses labor demands, public resources and family cohesion, we should heed the words of FDR and ignore the alarmist claims of those who perpetuate fear. We should push aside unsubstantiated fears of losing American culture because history has proven that we really have nothing to fear at all.

EDDIE GARCIA is president and co-founder of the Latino Leadership Alliance in San Jose. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.


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