January 17, 2016


Immigrant Song : How America gets assimilation (mostly) right. : a review of A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story by Tom Gjelten  (June Shih, January/February 2016, Washington Monthly)

Despite their radically different and often traumatic experiences in their home countries, Gjelten's families' lives, once they arrived in the United States, did not disturb the centuries-old American immigrant narrative. All were pulled to America by the promise of greater economic opportunity or political freedom for themselves, or at least for their children. They struggled with prejudice, language barriers, and poverty, but by dint of hard work met with some success, especially when measured against what they had left behind. The stories are indeed moving: A Korean couple goes to work in the chicken-processing plants on Maryland's Eastern Shore and carefully saves enough money to buy a gas station. A Bolivian father learns to fix cars by reading how-to manuals in the Fairfax County Public Library with a Spanish-English dictionary at his side. A Salvadoran hotel maid, though still struggling after twenty years to build a housecleaning business, finds satisfaction in being able to keep her children safe: "I come into my apartment and lock the door, and I see my children sleeping," Maria Quintanilla Call says. "That's what America has given me. I can sleep peacefully here and not think somebody is going to come in the night." A teenager arrives from Libya speaking little English, but wins admission to Georgetown, and finds in America the freedom to become a more devout Muslim.

Fairfax County, Gjelten argues, is a model for how America can absorb its newest immigrants: "The way [Fairfax] responded and the way it incorporated its new population might suggest how America could handle the challenges it had taken on by opening its doors as wide as it did after 1965." And indeed, the narrative is littered with good men and women doing the right thing, from the high school counselors and principal who found ways to defuse conflict between immigrant gangs, to the English as a Second Language teachers, friendly librarians, Jesuit priests, and well-meaning cops.

But not all the stories of assimilation are uncomplicated. We hear from Tom Davis, the former Republican congressman, who as a Fairfax County supervisor made the decisive vote in approving the construction of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in 1993. "Certain things in life go to the core of who you are and this was one of those core issues," Davis said. The mosque is now a hub for Muslim life in Washington, D.C., but also made national headlines for its former imam Anwar al-Aulaqi, who turned out to be an extremist with ties to the 9/11 hijackers and other terrorists, and was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

We meet Robert Frye, a longtime African American member of the Fairfax County school board, who fought to ensure that Fairfax County public schools served new immigrants' children and did not segregate them into failing schools, even when some argued that immigrant children drained resources from poor African American students. "These families came here through tremendous effort," he said. "And a part of their vision was to have their kids go to an American school. They did not want an immigrant school."

A key factor in the successful absorption of immigrants in Fairfax County was due not to anything the county affirmatively did, but to timing. Gjelten notes that the post-1965 immigrants did not move into inner-city ethnic ghettos--the Chinatowns or Little Italys of previous generations--but directly into integrated suburban neighborhoods. The civil rights movement, after all, had not just opened America's doors to immigrants of color, it had also opened up neighborhoods and schools. With regular exposure to neighbors and classmates of different races and religions, the second generation of Gjelten's families inevitably became "broad-minded, respectful of cultural differences and universal in outlook, perhaps even to a greater extent than their parents may have expected or wanted." Reflecting on the fact that a Roman Catholic priest had been his strongest ally when he started a Muslim Students Association chapter at Georgetown, Esam Omeish, the Libyan teenager turned successful doctor profiled in the book, recognized that such broad-mindedness would have been unthinkable in other countries.

It is perhaps this genuine embrace of the ideal of integration and equality that makes the America immigrant experience so much more successful than in Europe and other parts of the world. The idea of America as an imperfect country inspired by, built on, and ever striving to honor the principle of equality is one that empowers immigrants to recognize their ability to become Americans.

As a second-generation American who was always self-conscious about my race, I nevertheless felt empowered by the American story. In second grade, when assigned to make a collage of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I cut out a picture of President Jimmy Carter, pasted it on a piece of paper, and said I wanted to be the first woman president. I bought tricornered hats and quill pens and rolled up my pants into breeches so that I could dress up as my hero Thomas Jefferson, the author of the phrase "All men are created equal." The civil rights struggle for an America where one could be "judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" was a source of inspiration and comfort that I, too, fully belonged in America and was an American.

..about the persitent poverty and cultural struggles of blacks in America is that, because they were brought here as slaves, Africans were deprived of the normal immigrant experience that all other groups enjoyed.  Indeed, as he demonstrates, Africans and Haitians who immigrated voluntarily have achieved upwards mobility and affluence at the same rate as other cohorts.  One form of reparations that would benefit everyone is suggested above : move inner city blacks out of the ghetto and to the suburbs.

Posted by at January 17, 2016 9:58 AM