They’re Coming to America

I feel the need to write a political post, for a change. I've been observing the recent debate over immigration, and it's got me thinking. The part of the debate I dislike the most is the idea of a guest worker program. First of all, this system is in place in Germany (you know, one of those evil European powers that didn't support the war), but doesn't work that well. In Germany there is a sizable Turkish population (Turkish, but not born in Turkey), but the Turks stay low income and separated. In some parts of Europe this ghettoesque set up is fueling the terrorist cells. It doesn't work in Germany, but that's not what makes me cringe at the idea of an American guest worker program.

Now I'm a linguist, and along the way linguists pick up a good bit of sociology, too. Right now Mexican (and other) immigrants go through a tri-generational cycle. The first generation can't speak English, live in monoethnic communities, and by and large don't fit in as "Americans". The second generation speak their native language along with English (usually with only moderate proficiency), they live in the same monoethnic communities, but they get out a lot and mingle. The third generation can't speak anything but English, move to the suburbs, and you can't tell where they're from without knowing their last name. This is the way it was with the Irish; it's the way it was with the Italians; it's the way it was with the Eastern Europeans; and it's how it'll work with the Hispanics. However, if you create a permanent immigrant class, that's what it will stay- permanent. The immigrants will never merge into "American culture".

The Turks in Germany are culturally Turkish, even after multiple generations. It's being an American citizen that motivates becoming American. While the Hispanics are more cohesive as a group than most earlier waves of immigrants, they will eventually "fit in". It's too difficult to maintain a non-American tradition in this country. It's not easy to function here without knowing English, and stopping at Wal-Mart you won't find any Mexican food other than a burrito. It's hard to integrate quickly, but immigrants do so after a generation or too. Besides, these people tried very hard to get here. There's no reason to believe they don't want to be like Americans.

5 thoughts on “They’re Coming to America

  1. Jerry

    Athrakeus, there is a sizable number of Mexican wprlers, who in contrast to other immigrants, are merely coming here for the work. They will often go back home for part of the year. This sometimes means that their children spend a few months in an American school system, only to get yanked and spend the rest of the year in limbo. It’s a nice way to create an underclass, since their children don’t get jack in terms of a stable family or education. Since these workers send huge amounts of American dollars to their hometowns (often in excess of the local governments’ budgets), Senor Fox has very little reason to do anything about this whilst he cracks down on illegal immigrants to Mexico (yep, you read that right. Many are just using Mexico as a way station to the USA).

    I am pro-immigrant, and don’t want to sound xenophobic about this peculiar working-class, but Mexicans workers are often migrants rather than immigrants proper. They do not necessarily intend to stay here, like the German Turks, let alone become “Yanquis”, like the traditional American immigrant. We need to apply a different model to this problem.

  2. Peter

    Another thing Mexican immigrants do that mirrors what the Irish did in the 19th century is form violent gangs. Law enforcement where I live (central California) is practically drowning in Mexican gang activity. In fact, I’ve read law enforcement statistics showing that 20% of the population in my very own city are affiliated with one of these gangs (and some people who claim to be in the know have told me that it’s actually higher, though I’m skeptical).

    Local schools are daily confiscating paraphernalia that includes known gang signs and symbols, even from kids in early grades. In some neighborhoods, when a gang-related murder is committed, neighbors refuse to speak to police for fear of retribution. In Fresno, the police have actually gotten injunctions against gangs, such that known members who are seen together in public can be arrested.

    These gangs are an alternative route to assimilation into American culture, because they are their own culture. Furthermore, many of the gang members have appropriated the idea that the western United States needs to be re-conquered and taken back for some mythical native race (which, so far as I’ve read, is poorly, if not wholly spuriously, defined), so they believe themselves rightfully outside the law. It’s a bizarre situation.

    So for a lot of people where I live, when you talk about “Mexican immigrants,” they’re thinking “criminal gangsters who commit violent crimes regularly, believe themselves beyond the law, and raise their children accordingly.” It’s not just about laborers and people who don’t speak English, although we have lots of those, too. On Sunday afternoons I often take walks in a local park and am the only white person there — all the other people are Mexican immigrants speaking Spanish and playing with their kids. Those people don’t bother me a bit; I’m glad they’re here and I’m sure they’re going to follow the three-generation track just fine.

  3. advogado de diabo

    I’m not sure how any proposed legislation on guest worker status is worded, but according to the 14th amendment, anyone born in the US is a citizen. In Germany many of the 2nd and 3rd generation Turks do not have full citizenship, which is part of the reason they are an underclass. If the children of American guest workers are citizens, then they will not have the same disadvantages as the Turks in Germany.

    I think we desperately need the guest worker program. The status quo is inhumane.

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  5. Lightwave

    I can’t buy off on Peter’s assessment that “Mexican Immagrants […] form violent gangs.” I think you will find that this is true of every race. Indeed, race tends not to be the determining factor for all the ills we like to attribute to a minority. Instead, it is usually poverty or as I like to say, the socio-economic situation.

    Pick out a group of WASPs in the same socio-economic situation, and I’ll show you a group with a comparable incidence of violence, gang activity, poor education, etc.

    By the way, this classification works both ways. When leaders of just about any minority group claim that a piece of legislation hurts their minority group, the situation is (almost always) that the legislation impacts most the socio-economic class that, as it so happens, most of the folks they represent occupy. The bottom line: it’s not about race, its about class.

    I can’t say I blame the leaders of those communities. There have been so many injustices based on race, that its far easier to cast something as a race issue. Frankly, its hard to get people fired up about class inequities.

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