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G. Cultural Security and Pliability | matthewsimmigration

G. Cultural Security and Pliability: National Identity and the English Language

Historical U.S. immigration policy is found at various points in time and space where intermittent crises in human philosophy, political unrest and media sensationalism intersect with the country’s reactionary policy formulations centered on variant ideas of economic self-interest.  From the French Revolution in 1789 to the World Trade Center in 2001, societal politics and responsive legislative intent have followed a general pattern of defensive strategy rooted in market protectionism, at times backed by racist and eugenicist propaganda disguised as cultural preservation concerns.  Following an initial post-colonial period of immigration romanticism and relatively open borders aimed at strengthening a post-revolution nation capable of self-determination, the Irish potato famines and European depressions of the 1840s created a more "xenophobic" national mood as waves of Irish and German Catholic immigrants flooded into the country in search of employment.  At that time, the first Select Committee of the House of Representatives to study immigration concluded that these immigrants were "the outcasts of foreign countries; paupers, vagrants, and malefactors…sent hither at the expense of foreign governments, to relieve them from the burden of their maintenance." 255

 

The post-Civil War period of reconstruction pulled Chinese laborers to the country by the boatloads, though a subsequent economic depression in the 1870s led to the sudden cessation of Chinese immigration into the United States in the late nineteenth century.  This was not due to a sudden lapse of rational economic reason among Chinese workers but rather to the U.S. government’s interference in the market through the passage and enforcement of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. 256  This Act arose from labor protections and conjoined nativist sentiments as Cantonese immigrants poured into the nation’s railroad labor market throughout the mid-nineteenth century, 257 and for 61 years formed a barrier between the push (i.e., poor economic conditions in China) and the pull (i.e., higher wages offered by manufacturers and contractors in the United States).  However, when this Act was repealed in 1943, the push-pull stream from China to the United States continued unabated outside of other regulatory blockades such as the per-country quotas codified by Congress in the 1920s.  Leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act were a series of legislative debates, astonishing by today’s standards, which attacked the Chinese as not only unable to assimilate but also as biologically or spiritually inferior.  In 1876, a California State Senate Committee commented that the Chinese "fail to comprehend our system of government; they perform no duties of citizenship…They do not comprehend or appreciate our social ideas…The Chinese are inferior to any race God ever made…[and] have no souls to save, and if they have, they are not worth saving." 258  These attacks were not limited to the Chinese.  In preceding and subsequent years, other ethnic immigrant groups were singled out for their perceived inadequacies and these perceptions were always politically constructed out of some sort of national or international crisis interpreted as threats to internal markets.  Each crisis, whether real or imagined, provoked a political mandate upon a successive line of Congresses, which in turn passed a series of somewhat irrational yet politically expedient immigration laws aimed at pacifying the political mood of the citizen electorate.

 

Migration before the 1880s had been overwhelmingly from northern and western Europe but during the 1890s that pattern began to change, and during the first decade of the twentieth century, about 70 percent of immigrants came from new regions of emigration, notably from southern and eastern Europe.  The new origins of immigration led to political fervor among natives as notions of new immigrant inferiority became increasingly popularized, even within the academy.  A leading academic proponent of nativism, Edward Ross, wrote of Jews that they are "the polar opposite of our pioneer breed.  Undersized and weak muscled, they shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain."  He also lamented that Italians "possess a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skewed faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads.   [They] lack the power to take rational care of themselves." 259  Such extreme restrictionists repeatedly called for legislation that would decide whether the United States would be, as some put it, peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, or by the new immigrants, "beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggles for existence." 260

 

Despite their lack of rationality, these restrictionist arguments had a powerful effect on the making of immigration policy.  While contemporary America’s democratic liberalist ideals have largely overridden such propaganda, socio-cultural issues remain an important externality in the ongoing debate as national identity dialogue witnessed a pronounced renewal in the aftermath of 9/11.  Following a near-decade trend towards a more globalist or cosmopolitan conceptualization of identity as embraced and pushed forward, in part, by expansionists, fervent if nebulous nationalism immediately following the 9/11 attacks was embraced and pushed forward, in part, by restrictionists.  As we approach the fifth anniversary of the attacks, this renewed sense of nationalism still lingers and has fostered an attitude in the general population more susceptible to nativist influence and extreme notions of cultural identity preservation.  As per Rudolph, an increase in public concern over the effects of high levels of international migration indicates a growing sensitivity to the maintenance of sovereignty over access to social and political community. 261  Anthropologists and sociologists might call this a fear of the "other," of the unknown and of those who are different. 262  And in this context, borders, border security and selective immigration policies serve increasingly important symbolic functions in maintaining stable conceptions of national identity that, in the minds of many, constitute the cornerstone of the nation-state. 263

 

Playing to this somewhat alarmist environment, Samuel Huntington (Professor of Political Science at Harvard University) has recently focused his writings on the cultural and identity consequences of mass immigration from Mexico.  In "The Hispanic Challenge," a controversial excerpt from his latest publication entitled Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Huntington asserts that while Americans have historically defined themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, culture and religion, changes in American society have more recently led to a national identity rooted in culture and ideological creed.  He defines the American creed as a product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers, key elements of which include the English language, Christianity, religious commitment, English concepts of the rule of law (including the responsibility of rulers and the rights of individuals) and Protestant values of individualism, work ethic and the belief that Americans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a "city on a hill." 264

 

In this new era, according to Huntington, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, "especially from Mexico." 265  He criticizes expansionists for focusing on the economic costs and benefits of this new immigration while ignoring its social and cultural consequences, which he views as both dramatic and highly threatening based largely on a perceived "assimilation resistance" on the part of Mexican immigrants.  He asserts that massive Mexican immigration affects the United States in two significant ways: "Important portions of the country become predominantly Hispanic in language and culture, and the nation as a whole becomes bilingual and bicultural." 266  He points to the Hispanicized transformation of Miami by Cuban immigrants as a case study for the potential threat to the Southwestern and larger United States posed by Mexican immigrants who could "eventually undertake to do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial and educational systems to change fundamentally not only the language but also the very institutions in which they do business." 267  An apparent adherent to the reconquista argument, Huntington cites Charles Truxillo, Professor of Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico, who predicts that by 2080 the southwestern states of the United States and the northern states of Mexico will secede from their respective countries to form a new nation: La República del Norte. 268

 

Jorge Castañeda (former Foreign Minister of Mexico) counters Huntington in a formal response entitled "Immigration Reform Would Help Warm Mexicans to U.S. ‘Melting Pot,’" wherein he asserts that United States history includes several examples - such as the Irish immigration wave of the nineteenth century- in which broad assimilation occurred without immigrants losing their traditions or links to their native country.  He asks why it cannot be the same for Mexicans, stating that while "it is true that many previous immigrant groups didn’t face a language barrier, and that they probably didn’t face racism as acute as Mexicans today face.  But that does not mean it cannot happen." 269  Castañeda’s primary criticism of Huntington’s piece is that it describes a situation he characterizes as undesirable while making no effort to offer a solution.  Castañeda’s own solution involves the United States making a greater effort to construct a new type of assimilation that is both voluntary and effective, which would include the legalization of currently undocumented Mexican workers and their families, a constant and energetic battle to fight discrimination against Mexicans and a concerted effort to ease the road to citizenship. 270

 

Jacoby asserts that what is most disturbing about Who Are We? is its lack of confidence in the power of American identity.  In her opinion, it is as if Huntington cannot believe that our tolerant, universalist spirit could possibly stand up to an old-fashioned, ethnic nationalism of the kind that today’s migrants arrive with.  And, as a result, he needs to define America’s diffuse, big-tent essence down to the narrow orthodoxies of a more easily grasped culture, like Anglo-Protestantism.  Jacoby states that Huntington is "entitled to his fears and his pessimism, but it’s a sorry approach for a self-styled ‘patriot’ proposing to chart America’s way into the global future." 271

 

As per Harry Binswanger (Professor of Philosophy at the Ayn Rand Institute) immigrants are the kind of people who refresh the American spirit.  They are ambitious, courageous and value freedom.  They come here, often with no money and not even speaking the language, to seek a better life for themselves and for their children.  The vision of American freedom with its opportunity to prosper by hard work serves as a magnet drawing the best of the world’s people.  Immigrants are self-selected for their virtues: their ambitiousness, daring, independence and pride.  They are willing to cast aside the tradition-bound roles assigned to them in their native lands and to re-define themselves as Americans.  In Binswanger’s assessment, migrants are "the people America needs in order to keep alive the individualist, hard-working attitude that made America." 272

 

Whereas Huntington’s thoughts can be attributed to alarmism and fatalism (i.e., the assumption that second generation children of migrants are and can only be a mirror image of previous generations), conducive to an American post-9/11 reassessment environment but nevertheless irrational, Castañeda’s politically-motivated "legalize and energize" approach to assimilation provides no better guidance as to a workable solution.  In reality, there may be no solution to cultural change.  As Jacoby points out, cultural identity is not something easily grasped, as it is subject to continual revision and evolution.  A moderate approach to cultural identity would therefore recognize the value of a uniquely American distinctiveness while at the same time disarming both a box-model of cultural identity and an imaginative threat to a somewhat constructed sense of national self.  Further, a moderate approach would recognize that cultural identity issues are not immigration reform issues as they are not something that can or should be regulated.  The natural evolution of culture from within and the virtual immigration of ideas from abroad make identity a concept difficult to harness within a statutory framework.

 

The distinctiveness of United States culture must be protected insofar as its philosophical and ideological foundations are kept intact, and these foundations are located in the cultural fluidity and adaptability that are key elements of American distinctiveness and resiliency.  Prior waves of migrants, inclusive of those from European and Asian cultures, have achieved high levels of broad assimilation, and there is no reason to believe that Mexicans and other contemporary migrant groups cannot do the same.  Nevertheless, cultural identity issues fall outside the scope of regulation and the state should sidestep any efforts at affecting cultural community outside of building a sense of multicultural nationalism for the sake of self-preservation.  Cultural-societal concerns can be assisted in part through pragmatic policy elements that provide economic benefits while minimizing social change, but these are ultimately not regulation issues.  Responsibility falls on citizens themselves to create and sustain the type of culture they desire for themselves as they interact with the inevitable inflows of migrants from around the world.  In this respect, while Americans enjoy a distinct national identity as established through centuries of change, immigration, adaptation and multiculturalism, there is a propensity in the popular opinion polling data towards certain cultural preferences, specifically with respect to the English language.

 

Personal identity formulations are dictated by individual conscience and secured by civil liberty rights.  Civil liberties should therefore prevail in any immigration discussions concerning its effects on American culture, while the American public education system continues to build equitable moderate tolerance for new cultural nuances.  However, these efforts must be balanced against the pragmatism inherent to a common language.  Currently, English competence is a requirement for naturalization though not for permanent resident status.  It is clear that American society has evolved beyond the Chinese Exclusions of the past so a promotion of English should not be presented in law as a suggestion of cultural superiority.  Rather, an English standard should be instituted through an appeal to its shared social and economic benefits, as an ability to communicate and conduct transactions with one another is a commonsensical element of community-building and economic development.  Past resentment on the part of natives when migrants did not learn English upon their incorporation into American society led to deepened and more proactive nativism and restrictionism.  To learn from its past mistakes and to avoid future immigration conflict, the U.S. should codify basic English skills as a requirement for approving an immigrant visa abroad or adjusting a nonimmigrant to permanent resident status from within the United States, with fluency to follow on an individual level, at one’s own pace, through full immersion into American society.  As established herein, immigrants are self-selected for their drive and this fact suggests that those migrating into the United States would not face considerable intellectual hurdles in the achievement of English competency.

255 United States Department of State, "Visa Bulletin."

 

256 Ibid.  Foreign nationals from India are currently backlogged through January 1, 2006, in the EB-1 category and foreign nationals from China are currently backlogged through March 1, 2005, in the EB-2 category.

 

257 I.N.A. §203(b)(3), 8 U.S.C. §1153(b)(3).

 

258 United States Department of State, "Visa Bulletin."

 

259 I.N.A. §203(b)(3)(B), 8 U.S.C. §1153(b)(3)(B).

 

260 Fragomen, "Summary."

 

261 Federation for American Immigration Reform, "Comparison of H.R. 4437 and S. 2611."

 

262 I.N.A. §101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(a), 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(a); 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)(5).

 

263 I.N.A. §101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(b), 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(b); 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)(6).

 

264 I.N.A. §101(a)(15)(H)(i)(c).

 

265 I.N.A. §214(g)(1)(A), 8 U.S.C. §1184(g)(1)(A).

 

266 I.N.A. §214(g)(5)(C), 8 U.S.C. §1184(g)(5)(C).  Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005 (Includes L-1 Visa and H-1B Visa Reform Act, and the H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004) (Pub. L. No. 108-447).

 

267 Ibid.

 

268 I.N.A. §214(g)(1)(B), 8 U.S.C. §1184(g)(1)(B).

 

269 Chang, "Migration as International Trade."

 

270 I.N.A. §101(b)(1).

271 Ibid.

 

272 Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of November 10, 1986 (100 Statutes-at-Large 3537).

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