Modern Immigrants the Same as Always

Dream ActPew Research put out a great report this week, A Majority of English-Speaking Hispanics in the US Are Bilingual. What I love about it is that it counters most of the stereotypes that Americans have about our Spanish speaking immigrants. In particular, there is this idea, “Immigrants today don’t want to integrate with the rest of society!” This is such a tired complaint, that it is almost funny. This is what has been said about every immigrant group at every time in our country. It is true in a sense. What is distinctly not true is that there is anything different about “immigrants today.”

Think about it from the perspective of a new immigrant. If you settled in Russia, for example, don’t you think that you would naturally hang out with other American immigrants? They speak your native language; they share your culture; they are more inclined to help you out. This is not rocket science. It wouldn’t mean you weren’t committed to your life in Russia. But really, where are you going to go if you want a decent hamburger? Your becoming fully part of Russia is not something that you would do; it is something that your kids would do.

Both my father’s parents came to the United States from Portugal. It is almost the very definition of “immigrants built America.” My grandmother worked a maid and my grandfather worked odd jobs — eventually working for Luther Burbank. They were eventually able to buy a small farm and lived off that and traveling around the area bailing hay for other farmers. Yet most of what I remember as a kid are Portuguese parades and a bunch of old people arguing in Portuguese. My father, on the other hand, doesn’t even speak the language. His older brother and sister are bilingual, however. And that’s entirely typical of immigrants to the United States.

So what do we see with those horrible “immigrants today”? It’s exactly the same. People who immigrate from another country tend to stick with their mother tongue — but note that this doesn’t mean they don’t also know English. Their kids tend to be bilingual. And their grandkids tend to be just as mono-linguistic as the rest of the country:

Spoken Language of Recent Immigrant Groups

Strangely, the Pew article discussed the potential effect of the large Latino community in keeping Spanish alive as a language in the United States. I have no problem with that, but even discussing it seems to be somewhat racist — as though there really is something different this time with these immigrants. The data in the report itself show this really isn’t the case. In the graph above, we see that Spanish is dying out as a primary language. What’s more, census data indicate that Spanish is dying out as the primary language at home. But it may be the case that it will die out slightly slower than other languages have.

The main thing here is that we need to remember that our recent immigrants are the same as our past immigrants. Trying to put new immigrants into a special category is just doing what we’ve always done to immigrants. We need immigrants — desperately — but we hate them. And that isn’t right or helpful.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Modern Immigrants the Same as Always

  1. I have a friend whose wife is German, a co-worker who is Somali. I’ve asked them both if they tried to raise their kids bilingually. They’ve both tried, and it isn’t working. The kids were bilingual — until they hit school. Once they hit school, all the cool kids speak English, so they refuse to continue speaking that second language at home. And these are nice parents, so it’s not like they can whack the kids upside the head and make them stay bilingual.

    So, the solution to the (imaginary) problem of immigrants refusing to assimilate is — wait for it — spend less money on good public schools in immigrant neighborhoods!

    I’m no expert on the history of public schools, but I’d wager at least the price of one Arrogant Bastard that we instituted mandatory public schooling precisely to make immigrant children eager to assimilate. You do read how the “melting pot” has made children lose their heritage throughout American history and how parents agonize over that.

    It’s an ongoing thing. In one of Kevin Philipps’ books he sums it up; an immigrant describes how, back home, she couldn’t go to a movie with a boy without all of her aunts and uncles and cousins judging her. She loved escaping that but missed her family/community connections she’d left behind. The great thing, she said, about America is nobody cares what you do; the horrible thing about America is nobody cares what you do.

    There’s also the brilliant Pogues song “Thousands Are Sailing.” It describes the hardships of Irish laborers in America, now largely forgotten. And how emigration made them “refugees from fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies.”

    I’ve often ranted, here and elsewhere, about what America has to offer that’s so great. There’s one thing I’ve rarely thought of; mobility within the country. You want some distance from your family, the less positive aspects of the culture you were brought up in, you can move. It’s hard, but it’s not like learning a new language and having no employment background and all the serious shit immigrants have to face. Your SSN can go with you from Postdam to Pittsburgh or wherever. Your currency, if you’re lucky enough to have some saved up, spends just as well to pay the rent.

    That inward mobility in a large nation with distinct regional cultures (cultures conservo-fascists would like to subsume in one great Happy Flag Family) is a huge deal. It invented, for example, rock-and-roll, as blues-trained Southern musicians moved north and met jazz-trained musicians. When they met in Detroit, it created the most internationally accessible art America has ever produced.

    I learned yesterday that Stevie Wonder wrote Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown,” and I’ve been on a Motown high since. After the two bars of silly calliope effects in that song, James Jamerson’s bass line kicks in with a fury that crosses every cultural or national border. Jamerson grew up in the South, moved North, was a goddamn genius, and mixing those elements together makes something it would diminish to call magic. (I’m pretty convinced that Jamerson is one of the top rock artists of all time.) That could have happened in any country, but it did happen here, and our multiculturalism, oppressive as it was, made it happen.

    • The last country to require public schooling was Mississippi. Yet a lot of great musicians came out of Mississippi. (Not Jamerson though.) Remember this:

      Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

      It isn’t actually true, but great things can happen under great oppression.

      I think that public school has largely been used as a force for social cohesion. I used to be against that, but now I think there is much to say for it. There is a balance. A nation of people like me would be no nation at all. Some cohesion is necessary. Too much is fascism.

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