The disappearing immigrant

Hey, Bill, immigrants are "the bridge to the future."

Published September 5, 1996 7:20PM (EDT)

who wants immigrants anymore? Who, frankly, needs them?
Maybe America needed them 50 years ago, maybe 100 years ago...

Besides, they're annoying, especially when they're poor.
Forget their garlic breath or that they don't know how to drive on the freeway. The trouble with most of them is that they come to this country flat-broke, and take and take and take.

Our politicians have caught this public mood. The new
welfare bill, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic
president, eliminates almost all government aid to immigrants who are legally here but not yet citizens. Last week, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed an executive order denying prenatal care and other benefits to undocumented immigrants.

The response has been deafening in its silence. No one complains, except for immigrant advocacy groups and some churchy types. At both the Democratic and Republican conventions, with their ad nauseam appeals to "family," almost nothing was said about the outside world's contribution to the American family. The difference between the two presidential candidates
comes down to this: One candidate invokes America's
past, the other speaks of some sort of "bridge to the future."
Neither one extols -- or even acknowledges -- the central role of immigrants in our national life. Such an omission cheapens the heroism of the American experience.

I had the misfortune of following the Democratic Party proceedings in Chicago while making my way through "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's wonderful book about Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and the opening of the American West. It's unfair, of course, to compare either Bob Dole or Bill Clinton to Thomas Jefferson. But it is not unfair to compare America at the start of the 19th century with our nation at the close of the 20th century.

American pioneers in 1800 were the illegal immigrants of their time. They were rough and rude. But what brave lives! And what a visionary Jefferson was, buying the Louisiana Territory; dreaming of a place for the Indian in the new nation; sending the young Mr. Lewis to find the Pacific Ocean. These original immigrants, the early Americans, were unafraid of the horizon. They were moved (literally) by curiosity. Family values? Meriwether Lewis, as a teenager, abandoned his mother in Virginia to hack his way through the wilderness.

By the 1840s, Anglo-Protestant America was wrestling with the newer wave of immigrants -- the northern Europeans, the Irish. Could they ever be good Americans? Could a Catholic or a Jew?
Ultimately, of course, America risked the future. And, thanks to the immigrants' contributions, America won.

As the son of immigrants, I am not unaware of all that this country gives the newcomer -- opportunity, freedom, safety. But I am struck by how much America still gets from the immigrant, especially the poor, all of them part of the American family, and still among the most optimistic. Turbaned cab drivers on the streets of New York, Korean grocers in the troubled neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Mexican teenagers on precarious scaffolding in San Francisco -- these are the people driven by a lust for the future, who remind us of what America has always been, a place of new beginnings, a land of explorers.

Maybe we don't have an "immigrant problem" but a native-born problem. We are frightened by these immigrants who are taking jobs all over our cities, out-working us, undercharging for their labor. All over the world -- from Tijuana to Singapore -- the poor are working, assembling our televisions and our jogging shoes. It is their industriousness that troubles us.

Perhaps we are entering a post-American America. After all, we are on average 33 years old. In the 19th century we were a teenage nation. And the Census Bureau notes that we are moving less, settling down. We have a mortgage and two kids who need to be taken to soccer practice. We have governors like Pete Wilson who speak our minds. Our teenagers are no longer exploring
the wilderness, they are taking acid.

Meanwhile, there is a new rush by immigrants to apply for citizenship. You see them on the evening news, standing in line. They sense, after the passage of the welfare bill, a new mood -- a
disinterest? a hostility? -- toward immigration, legal or illegal.
"I don't feel persecuted," one woman, a Russian Jew, was quoted as saying. "But there is a sense we're not welcome."

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Days of Obligation: An
Argument with My Mexican Father" (Viking-Penguin). His essay, "True West: Relocating the horizon of the American frontier," is in the September issue of
Harper's Magazine

© Pacific News Service

Quotes of the day

Citizens of the world

"Assume that we continue to ship entire industries overseas to other countries, then a major
war breaks out 10 years from now. We go to Puerto Rico and ask them politely if
they will give us medicines and pharmaceuticals for our troops who are wounded in combat.
Obviously, we have to manufacture these goods within our borders to defend this great

-- Ross Perot, on the campaign trail in Salt Lake City, apparently unaware that Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. (From "Perot Accuses Clinton of Playing Politics in Iraq," in Thursday's New York Times)

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

MORE FROM Richard Rodriguez

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