Why a Recent Rise in Nativist Xenophobia Is So Troubling in a Nation of Immigrants

I'm betting most of these folks just want better lives for themselves and their kids. Just like most of us do.
I'm betting most of these folks just want better lives for themselves and their kids. Just like most of us do.

Some of the earliest memories I have from childhood involve learning about my family's origins before they'd come to America. I was told I was "half German and half Irish" from my mother's side, with Czech from my dad's. This seemed like a perfectly normal way to conceptualize my family's history at the time, and gave me a sense of where we'd come from. There are childhood photos of me wearing lederhosen, and I was taught to say "gesundheit" when someone sneezed, which is a habit I still occasionally fall into today.

But that was about the extent of my observance of the cultural traditions of my ancestors, and it never occurred to me until many years later that the way many Americans describe their European roots might look odd to some real Europeans. I have made quite a few European friends since childhood, and they find it puzzling that Americans describe themselves as "a quarter German" (for example), since we're talking about people's nationality, and not a bloodline of the sort one might attribute to a breed of dogs.

I'd never thought of it like that before, but they had a point. My great-great-grandparents spoke German before learning English, but a couple of generations later, no one in my family did. Nor did we observe many German traditions, because we'd been assimilated into the melting pot of America. When my German friends good-naturedly pointed out that it seemed weird to them that I'd describe myself as part German based on immigrant ancestors I'd never met, I had to agree with them.

Yep, childhood Lederhosen and a love of sauerkraut, some of the only links to my "one quarter" pre-American ancestry I can claim.
Yep, childhood Lederhosen and a love of sauerkraut, some of the only links to my "one quarter" pre-American ancestry I can claim.
Photo courtesy of Chris Lane

While the practice might seem odd to people in Europe, it makes more sense to me now. It's a simple way to describe our pre-American roots, and since America is a young country, most of our families came from somewhere else. Unless a person is Native American, our family histories can be traced to other nations. Being interested in those roots is human nature, and also a very American thing.

That's why it's depressing to watch as this nation's xenophobic and racist tendencies surge in regards to newer waves of immigrants. This is nothing new, of course; despite this country's image as being welcoming to people from other countries trying to immigrate here, new arrivals often met with resistance from citizens who'd been around a little while longer. Immigrants from Ireland and Italy were once looked upon with suspicion, as being the "other," as were Jews and Catholics. Looking at our history, America was rarely friendly to large populations of newcomers, but at least immigration was relatively easy when a lot of them hit these shores. Not so now.

One of the arguments people who oppose illegal immigration will often make is some variation of "I'm not against legal immigration; I just want them to do it the legal way."

That seems reasonable enough, and I'll give many of those folks the benefit of the doubt that they're not motivated by racism, but unfortunately it's really difficult for many people to immigrate legally. That's especially true compared to the distant past, when a lot of those critics' own families became Americans.

For most of our country's history, there were few obstacles to becoming a resident here. Back in the old days, the only records of new arrivals were ship lists that stated their passengers' names and nationality. A person could own property, work and enjoy most of the benefits of citizenship without ever becoming one. Citizenship was really required only if a person wanted to vote, buy land from the government or run for public office, and for most of the 19th century, that process was an exceptionally simple one.

For the most part, all a person seeking citizenship had to do was go to a court that kept permanent records, officially declare he had intentions to renounce his allegiance to his former country, and that he wanted to become a U.S. citizen. The process involved making a sworn statement to a judge, and signing a document, about as much trouble as it used to take to get Blockbuster Video membership. People were almost never denied, and within five years, the applicant would reappear in court with a couple of witnesses who would swear he'd been a good citizen, at which point the judge would officially declare him one, and that was that.

In the late 19th century, things began to change with the massive influx of people entering America from Eastern and Southern Europe. In 1892 Ellis Island opened and served as the primary portal for most immigrants seeking entry into this country. The process to gain citizenship became more complex than it had been, but was still less difficult compared to today. For most immigrants coming from Europe, that process involved three to five hours of waiting in a crowded room, after which they'd undergo a brief medical and legal examination. The process wasn't always pleasant or fair by modern standards, but only about 2 percent of people were denied citizenship. This was however, a period in which immigration laws favored white immigrants, excluding some groups because of racist bias, a tradition some would argue continues today.

Still, it was much easier for most people to become citizens then. Compare that process to the complicated legal hoops, years of waiting and great expense that people must endure to "do it the legal way" today, and it becomes obvious why a lot of them choose not to.

Another argument that's often bandied about by those who oppose immigration is that new arrivals coming to America don't assimilate as previous ones did. This objection seems deeply rooted in xenophobia and can have racist overtones too. It's a criticism that has traditionally been made toward all new immigrants, especially those who weren't white or who spoke languages other than English, and it's also been completely disproven.

All anyone has to do is look at the children and grandchildren of immigrants from non-English-speaking countries to see that in most cases American assimilation happens quickly. That's supported in a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found newer generations of immigrants are assimilating into society here as quickly and broadly as previous ones.

On a more personal, anecdotal note, my great-great-grandparents spoke German as their native language, but their children spoke English. It appears that recent American immigrants are following that same pattern, and the supposed lack of assimilation is a myth.

To expect that newer immigrants to America should immediately abandon all cultural ties to their former countries is also ridiculous. Those childhood lederhosen photos and a smattering of German words in my vocabulary were minor cultural ties to my family's history, but they didn't make me less American. In a country where so many of us celebrate those ancestral ties, how can we ask others to deny their own?

Modern America faces real challenges in regards to our enforcement of immigration laws. We can't have a free-for-all, and it's reasonable to expect that our laws be followed and enforced. I would not argue that there aren't expenses and challenges to our system caused by illegal immigration, and those challenges need to be addressed. However, too many of the core objections to having undocumented immigrants in this country seem to be based on their "otherness," and not on valid criteria. The debate about how we treat undocumented people in this country should be free of that sort of xenophobic rhetoric.

This is a nation of immigrants, and most of our families came here from somewhere else. We should treat others trying to do the same with more empathy and less derision.


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