Here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of
-- Walt Whitman
Reina came from El Salvador because of "horrible things." She says simply, "I got scared." When she finally reached Los Angeles and found a job as a housekeeper at $125 a week, her new employer pointed to the vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaner? Reina, 24, had never seen such a thing before. "She gave me a maid book and a dictionary," says Reina, who now writes down and looks up every new word she hears. "That's how I learn English. I don't have time to go to school, but when I don't speak English, I feel stupid, so I must learn."
Manuel Martins Simtoes had been a truck driver in Lisbon, but when he got to Newark in 1974, he worked on a construction gang during the week and waited on tables weekends. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy a restaurant. "The building was really broken down and dirty," Simoes says, "but my wife and I rebuilt the whole thing and put in a private dining room and a barbecue in the back." After seven years, he sold the place for a $185,000 profit and returned to Lisbon to set himself and his brother up in business and live like a lord. But Simtoes was miserable. "All business in Portugal now is bad," he says, "and the kids are a headache, always wanting to go back to the U.S." Next week the family is emigrating all over again. "The first thing we will do," says Simoes, "is become American citizens."
Lam Ton, from Viet Nam, is already a U.S. citizen, and he too did well with a restaurant, the Mekong, at the intersection of Broadway and Argyle Street in Chicago. "When I first moved in here, I swept the sidewalk after we closed," he recalls. "People thought I was strange, but now everyone does the same." Lam Ton's newest project is to build an arch over Argyle Street in honor of the immigrants who live and work there. "I will call it Freedom Gate," he says, "and it will have ocean waves with hands holding a freedom torch on top. It will represent not just the Vietnamese but all the minorities who have come here. Just look down Broadway. That guy is Indian, next to him is a Greek, next to him is a Thai, and next to him is a Mexican."
They seem to come from everywhere, for all kinds of reasons, as indeed they always have. "What Alexis de Tocqueville saw in America," John F. Kennedy once wrote, "was a society of immigrants, each of whom had begun life anew, on an equal footing. This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers . . ." It was in memory of Kennedy's urging that the U.S. in 1965 abandoned the quota system that for nearly half a century had preserved the overwhelmingly European character of the nation. The new law invited the largest wave of immigration since the turn of the century, only this time the newcomers have arrived not from the Old World but from the Third World, especially Asia and Latin America. Of the 544,000 legal immigrants who came in fiscal 1984, the largest numbers were from Mexico (57,000, or more than 10%), followed by the Philippines (42,000) and Viet Nam (37,000). Britain came in ninth, with only 14,000.
This enormous migration is rapidly and permanently changing the face of America. It is altering its racial makeup, its landscapes and cityscapes, its taste in food and clothes and music, its entire perception of itself and its way of life. There have long been Chinatowns in American cities, but now there is Little Havana in Miami, Koreatown in Los Angeles, Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., Little Odessa in Brooklyn, N.Y. Monterey Park, Calif., was the first U.S. city to have a Chinese-born woman as mayor, and the five-member city council includes two Hispanics and a Filipino American; Hialeah, Fla., has a Cuban-born mayor; Delaware, a Chinese-born Lieutenant Governor.
"It's fascinating," says New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the son of Italian immigrants. "For those of us who have been in the city for 50 years, it's wonderful to see the faces on the street now. Our diversity level has gone up." The new immigrants' contribution to America, Cuomo says, is "plus, plus, plus."
In addition to the half-million immigrants who are allowed to come to the U.S. each year, a substantial number arrive illegally. Estimates of the total vary widely. The Immigration and Naturalization Service apprehended 1.3 million illegal immigrants last year (many of them more than once) and guessed that several times that many had slipped through its net. The Census Bureau, however, estimated the total of illegal immigrants in the U.S. at between 3.5 million and 6 million in 1978. A National Academy of Sciences study issued last week denounced the INS statistics as "woefully inadequate" and put the total of illegals at no more than 2 million to 4 million. These include anyone from German students who deliberately overstay their visas to Haitian boat people who scramble ashore in South Florida, but roughly 60% of the illegals are Hispanics, and about two-thirds of these are Mexicans driven by poverty and unemployment across the highly porous 2,000-mile southern frontier.
The newest wave raises many questions: How many immigrants can the country absorb and at what rate? How much unskilled labor does a high-tech society need? Do illegals drain the economy or enrich it? Do newcomers gain their foothold at the expense of the poor and the black? Is it either possible or desirable to assimilate large numbers of immigrants from different races, languages and cultures? Will the advantages of diversity be outweighed by the dangers of separatism and conflict?
When asked about such issues, Americans sound troubled; their answers are ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. In a TIME poll taken by Yankelovich, Skelly & White Inc.,* only 27% agreed with the idea that "America should keep its doors open to people who wish to immigrate to the U.S. because that is what our heritage is all about." Two-thirds agreed that "this philosophy is no longer reasonable, and we should strictly limit the number." Some 56% said the number of legal immigrants was too high, and 75% wanted illegal immigrants to be tracked down. On the other hand, 66% approved of taking in people being persecuted in their homelands.
"One of the conditions of being an American," says Arthur Mann, professor of history at the University of Chicago, "is to be aware of the fact that a whole lot of people around you are different, different in their origins, their religions, their life-styles." Yet most Americans do not know exactly what to make of those differences. Of those polled by Yankelovich, 59% believe that immigrants generally end
up on welfare (the best estimate is that less than 20% do), and 54% think they add to the crime problem. Yet 58% feel that immigrants are basically good, honest people, and 67% think they are productive citizens once they become established. One out of every two knows someone who came to the U.S. in the past few years; of them, a majority says this knowledge has changed their views for the better.
"Such a mess," says Roger Conner, director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates stronger restrictions. "We imagine ourselves as responsible for the whole world's problems, but immigration over the next 40 years will mean 50 million more people, and once they get here, they have children." "Our kids can't get jobs because the illegals take them," says Harold Ezell, Western commissioner of the INS. "If we don't control this border, we're going to lose control of this country." Says Conner: "The politicians don't want to talk about what is happening and what will happen."
But they do. "Every house needs a door, and every country needs a border," says Colorado's Democratic Governor Richard Lamm. If the U.S. fails to stop illegal immigration, he warns, "we shall leave a legacy of strife, violence and job-lessness for our children." Florida's Senator Lawton Chiles is equally alarmist. "If we do not regain control of our borders . . . I think that within ten years, we will not recognize the United States as the United States we see today."
Much of the concern comes from people who favor continued immigration, but who fear the consequences if a slowdown in the economy were to heighten the sense that immigrants, especially illegal ones, take jobs away from Americans. "We could have a terrible backlash, a terrible period of repression," warns the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame and chairman of the Select Commission on Immigration that was established by Congress in 1978. "People tend to forget that twice in our lifetime, this country has rounded up hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and pushed them back over the border.* That was a terrible thing . . . but it could very well go on. Police sweeps from house to house, rounding up millions of people, pushing them back over a border, turning that border into a kind of armed camp."
Senator Alan Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who joined with Kentucky Democrat Romano Mazzoli to turn the Select Commission's findings into an immigration reform bill, estimates that Mexico would have to generate 700,000 new jobs every year (200,000 more than it is currently creating) just to keep its unemployment from getting worse. Simpson and Mazzoli have failed three times to get their bill passed, but Simpson, undaunted, presented yet another bill in May.
Xenophobia is not the force behind today's serious efforts to reform immigration. Simpson and other proponents recognize that most new immigrants, like the generations who came before them, work long and hard, and as much as possible on their own. Says Melvin Holli, professor of history at the University of Illinois, Chicago: "Their work ethic serves them well, and it serves us well. In a sense, they are refurbishing our work ethic." The new immigrants, says Lawrence H. Fuchs, chairman of American Studies at Brandeis, "have gumption, courage, ambition. They want to
make it." This quality, which Fuchs has dubbed the "X-factor," is evident also among the children of immigrants. "They have a double X-factor: they are unencumbered by homesickness, alienation or the psychology of exile."
The American schoolroom has traditionally provided a hopeful glimpse of the nation's future, and some people still imagine it to be a Rockwellian scene of mostly pink-cheeked children spelling out the adventures of Dick and Jane. But come for a moment to the playground of the Franklin elementary school in + Oakland, where black girls like to chant their jump-rope numbers in Chinese. "See you manana," one student shouts with a Vietnamese accent. "Ciao!" cries another, who has never been anywhere near Italy. And let it be noted that the boy who won the National Spelling Bee in Washington last month was Balu Natarajan, 13, who was born in India, now lives in a suburb of Chicago, and speaks Tamil at home. "Milieu" was the word with which he defeated 167 other competitors. Let it also be noted that Hung Vu and Jean Nguyen in May became the first Vietnamese-born Americans to graduate from West Point.
The number of newcomers is large in itself (an amazing two-thirds of all the immigration in the world consists of people entering the U.S.), but their effect is heightened because they have converged on the main cities of half a dozen states. Nowhere is the change more evident than in California, which has become home to 64% of the country's Asians and 35% of its Hispanics. Next comes New York, followed by Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. Miami is 64% Hispanic, San Antonio 55%. Los Angeles has more Mexicans (2 million) than any other city except metropolitan Mexico City, and nearly half as many Salvadorans (300,000) as San Salvador.
These population shifts change all the bric-a-brac of life. A car in Los Angeles carries a custom license plate that says SIE SIE LI, meaning, in Chinese, "thank you." Graffiti sprayed in a nearby park send their obscure signals in Farsi. A suburban supermarket specializes in such Vietnamese delicacies as pork snouts and pickled banana buds. The Spanish-language soap opera Tu o Nadie gets the top ratings among independent stations every night at 8.
Such changes require adaptation not only in the schools and the marketplace but throughout society. The Los Angeles County court system now provides interpreters for 80 different languages from Albanian and Amharic to Turkish and Tongan. One judge estimates that nearly half his cases require an interpreter. Sometimes the results are freakish. A police officer testified that he had read a Chinese suspect his Miranda rights in Chinese, in the Tai- shan dialect. The suspect only understood Cantonese. The judge thereupon ruled out his confession.
These changes do not represent social decline or breakdown. The newcomers bring valuable skills and personal qualities: hope, energy, fresh perspectives. But the success stories should not blot out the fact that many aliens face considerable hardships with little immediate chance of advancement. Avan Wong, 20, came from Hong Kong in 1983 and hoped to go to college. She lives in the Bronx with her aged father, commutes two hours by bus to a job of up to twelve hours a day in a suburban restaurant. "I don't even read the newspapers," she says. "You don't have time. Once you go home, you go to sleep. Once you get up, you have to go to work. The only thing I'm happy about is that I can earn money and send it back to my mother. Nothing else. You feel so lonely here." College is not in sight.
Jose Luis Villa, who slipped across the Mexican border last fall, has even worse prospects. He makes his home on a ragged mattress, one of about 30 lying in a row underneath the roaring traffic of Los Angeles' San Diego Freeway. Next to Villa's mattress stands a cardboard Perrier carton that contains most of his worldly possessions: a toothbrush, a tube of Colgate toothpaste, a cracked and yellowing bar of soap, a flashlight and a beginner's manual of English. Villa looks 13, but he claims to be 16. Every morning he hikes over to the "slave market" on Sawtelle Boulevard and hangs around with other youths until someone drives up and offers him $30 for a day's work shoveling gravel or moving furniture. "It's better than picking crops in Mexico," he says. "I'd rather go home than stay here forever, but I don't know when I can do that. I don't think about it, really."
Many immigrants are still the tired, the poor, the huddled masses whom the Statue of Liberty traditionally welcomed to New York Harbor. But the newcomers disembarking at Kennedy Airport or Miami or Los Angeles also include the successful. Baron Guy de Rothschild, for example, recently took refuge in New York City from the vagaries of French Socialism. Australia's publishing tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who has made a deal to buy seven television stations in the U.S., announced in May that he would become a U.S. citizen. The roster of Soviet immigrants includes not only the black-garbed babushkas huddled over their knitting in Brooklyn's Little Odessa but such artists as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
In greeting them with a mixture of sympathy and anxiety (lightly flavored with hypocrisy), Americans express one of their oldest national traditions. Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed it self-evident that all men are created equal, felt considerable doubts about whether they were all equally well suited to be U.S. citizens. He complained of "the unbounded licentiousness" some of the newcomers displayed, and he warned that they would turn the nation into "a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass." This at a time when the U.S. population was only 2 million, and still 80% from the British Isles.
Early in the 19th century came the great flood of Irish (2 million between 1815 and 1860) and Germans (1.5 million), some driven westward by political persecution, more by hunger and hardship. Philip Hone, mayor of New York in the 1820s, regarded both the Irish and the Germans as "filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties." "Nativists" in Philadelphia raided Irish Catholic churches and burned Irish homes.
The next wave was more than twice as large -- 10 million from 1860 to 1890 -- but these were still mostly Northern Europeans: English, Dutch, Swedes, Norwegians. The third wave was even bigger: 16 million from 1890 to 1914, including a still unmatched record of 1.3 million in 1907 (when the total U.S. population was only 87 million). And to the dismay of the now established Irish and Germans, more than 80% of the newcomers were Eastern and Southern Europeans: Sicilians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Russian Jews fleeing the Czar's pogroms. This was the era in which Emma Lazarus wrote the Statue of Liberty's welcome to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but it was also the era in which the eminent Thomas Bailey Aldrich, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, composed a poem entitled "Unguarded Gates":
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng --
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav . . .
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws . . .
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
Even with the best intentions on all sides, the question of how to fit all these varieties of strangers into a relatively coherent American society remains difficult. Linda Wong, a Chinese-American official of the Mexican- American Legal Defense and Education Fund, sees trouble in the racial differences. "There is concern among whites that the new immigrants may be unassimilable," says Wong. "Hispanics and Asians cannot melt in as easily, and the U.S. has always had an ambivalent attitude toward newcomers. Ambivalent at best, racist at worst."
Many historians disagree. Hispanics, says Sheldon Maram, a professor of history at California State University at Fullerton, "are moving at about the same level of acculturation as the Poles and Italians earlier in the century. Once they've made it, they tend to move out of the ghetto and melt into the rest of society." Asians often have it easier because they come from urban middle-class backgrounds. "They are the most highly skilled of any immigrant group our country has ever had," says Kevin McCarthy, a demographer at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.
Immigrants struggling to make good in the U.S. often express dismay at what they see around them. "Many American values and customs which are very much part of the American way of life are seen (by Indians) as 'evil,' " writes Parmatma Saran, associate professor of sociology at Baruch College in Manhattan. "The American attitude toward sex . . . is viewed as immoral." Gaspar Ortega, a onetime Mexican prizefighter who is now a social worker in New Haven, Conn., is concerned about American treatment of the family. "I get disgusted when I see families separated. I blame the pressure of the dollar when both mother and father have to work and leave the kids in day care. In Mexico, babies are breast-fed with the milk of life. We were poor, but we were a family."
Still, the process of assimilation is inexorable. "As these students become Americanized, they want to eat hot dogs and hamburgers and pizza," says Mark Palermo, a teacher at Chicago's Senn High School. "They want designer jeans and bicycles and calculators and digital watches. We're taught maybe it's an error to be materialistic, but material things are what they want."
The genes change too. Statistically, according to one study, about 80% of European immigrants marry outside their own ethnic groups by the time they reach the third generation. Among Japanese Americans, at least in the Chicago area, the comparable figure is 15% in the second generation, 50% in the third.
How long, how complete and how painful the process of Americanization will be remains unclear. It is true that ethnic elitists have bewailed each succeeding wave of Irish or Germans or Greeks, but it is also true that the disparities among Korean merchants, Soviet Jews, Hmong tribesmen, French socialites and Haitian boat people are greater than any the U.S. or any other country has ever confronted. On the other hand, Americans are probably more tolerant of diversity than they once were. "America is much more of a pluralistic society now," says Peter Rose, professor of sociology at Smith College. "You don't hear so much talk about the melting pot today. The old ideology, the concerted effort to make people the same, has been overtaken by reality."
The question is not really whether the new Americans can be assimilated -- they must be -- but rather how the U.S. will be changed by that process. Economically, there will inevitably be strains, but most evidence indicates that the immigrants create more wealth than they consume. Socially and culturally, the diversity can hardly help benefiting the U.S. by acting as an antidote to everything that is bland and homogenized. The sad fact, indeed, is that uniformity is exactly what the immigrants' children will probably strive for, and their grandchildren achieve.
Politically, the prospects are uncertain. A large majority of immigrants -- some illegal, some ineligible, some anxious, some apathetic -- do not vote at all. Hispanic registration drives are trying to change that, but even in Los Angeles only 12% of the voters (vs. nearly 33% of the population) are Hispanic. Asians appear even more wary of political activism, though some are beginning to seek clout through financial contributions. By one estimate, they provided 25% of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's last campaign fund.
Historically, immigrants have tended to vote Democratic, but this is no longer so predictable. Many Cubans, Koreans, Taiwanese and Vietnamese came with strong anti-Communist fervor, and President Reagan's appeal has broken open many traditionally Democratic groups.
In Miami there was a bizarre confrontation over the Memorial Day weekend as exiled Cubans and Nicaraguans waved U.S. flags to welcome Reagan, while native-born Americans brandished placards denouncing his Latin American policies. "Go back to Russia," one Nicaraguan shouted at an Anglo demonstrator. "Y'all go back to Cuba," came the answer.
The new wave of immigrants, says former California Governor Jerry Brown, is gradually changing the country's angle of vision. "The Pacific Rim is becoming the focal point for economic and political concerns," he says. "This immigration will eventually move Europe to a lower priority in the way we look at the world." It is a mistake, though, to think of immigrants as an undifferentiated clump, politically or otherwise. Not only do they differ by national origin and social class and ideology but also according to whether they plan to stay permanently or eventually return home. "What binds Americans to one another, regardless of ethnicity or religion, is an American civic culture," says Brandeis Professor Fuchs. "It is the basis for the unum in E pluribus unum. It is a complex of ideals, behaviors, institutions, symbols and heroes connected by American history and its great documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address. It is backed by a civil religion giving transcendent significance to those ideals. And it is the basis for accepting ethnic diversity while protecting individual rights. An American can be as ethnic as he or she wishes in private actions, but in public actions, the rules of the civic culture are binding."
Lam Ton, the Vietnamese restaurateur who wants to build a freedom arch in Chicago, says these things differently because he is not a professor at Brandeis, but he feels very strongly about the civic culture. "This is the last stand," he says. "There is nowhere else to run. We have to stick to this country and help it do better."
FOOTNOTE: *The findings are based on a telephone survey from April 30 to May 2 of 1,014 registered voters. The potential sampling error is plus or minus 3%.
FOOTNOTE: *About 500,000 were expelled in the early 1930s and 2.2 million from 1953 to 1955. Some were actually U.S. citizens, and some were thrown out more than once.