(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
In the Twentieth Century, most of us were taught that The United States was a melting pot for the diverse people who created her. I prefer to think of us as a stew, and I really like a good stew. It has complicated flavors, takes a bit of effort on the part of the cook, and some time.
In the early Nineteenth Century we were a nascent country attempting to create a separate identity for ourselves. We created a mythology, which included the story of George Washington and the cherry tree to emphasize how we valued honesty. Other tales emphasized rugged individualism and creativity. We took words from the different people who were part of our population and made them our own; hence, American English includes words from Amerindian languages, Scottish, German, Dutch, and others that have confused our British brethren who thought we spoke the same language. We, also intentionally, changed the spelling or pronunciation of words to help foster our distinct identity. Did you read the English or American version of the Harry Potter series? There were some editing differences so that audiences on both sides of the Pond could easily read, and enjoy, the story.
One of the original selling points for a publically funded school system came from the sense that without a shared education our various immigrants would be at best slow, or worst case, unable to assimilate. Public schools were initially developed in the urban centers at the main points of immigration in the 1800s. No one has ever claimed that our schools were perfect. Rather we have always agreed that they are a work in progress. We disagree about their efficacy, but agree that it is important to retain them.
Our Revolution was, in part, successful because of people being able to read and discuss broadsides and newspapers. Go to the tavern or the inn, read and pass around the papers and discuss them. The same was true of the ratification of the Constitution, and the rapidity with which the Bill of Rights was adopted. The Federalist Papers, originally called the Federalist, were a series of essays published in newspapers to facilitate discussion and encourage acceptance of the new Constitution. There was an agreed upon understanding of who we were, where we had come from, and where we wanted to go.
With the Industrial Revolution and ever increasing numbers of immigrants the sense of who we were began to be lost. We needed to have our immigrants participate in public discussion if our representative democracy was to continue. The adults needed to work to be able to feed their families, so the obvious way to maintain the culture was to teach them through their children. The children would learn to read so that they could read papers and share with and teach their parents to read. The children would be taught our history so that the entire family would understand our mores and ethos. They were also to be taught basic ciphering, that is arithmetic. These skills would help the children to become good employees and Citizens. The latter was a key reason for being able to convince people to allowed themselves to be taxed to provide for a public school system.
After World War II we had become a wealthy society. Most who wanted a job could find one. Most who wanted an education beyond high school could afford a technical school or at least a few classes at a college. As a percentage of the total population, immigrants were fewer, thus more easily absorbed into the general population. Those returning from the war had been raised during a severe economic depression and wanted to make a life for their family that was better and had more advantages than they themselves had had. Walt and I are products of that frenetic effort. Our parents gave us more material goods than they had had. They encouraged us to go further in school than they had gone. They required us to grow up more slowly and with less responsibility than they had had. We, the Baby Boomer Generation, have benefited from the advantages of having such largesse from our parents and in turn passed it on to this wonderful nation of ours. We have also helped make our Nation and Society poorer due to the myths that such a large influx of new people, for that is what a generation is, have inflicted on the body politic. As with any non-assimilated wave of immigrants we have kept to ourselves, put our own spin on the tale we tell the world about ourselves, and cost the general population by our very size.
During the idealism of our youth we determined to make this the best of all possible worlds without hearing the sarcasm of Voltaire as the baser nature of people caused unforeseen and unintentional consequences to the changes we had demanded with all good intentions. As with many people who look for improvement, we touted the deficiencies in our systems, with no regard to how we were no longer citing the good things that had brought us this far.
Our current immigration policy is one of the systems that this generation feels obligated to fix. This sense of ambivalence toward “all those foreigners” has been present in our society from its early years when we offered succor to those fleeing the French Revolution. Quota systems have been the most frequent choice in our attempts to keep some sort of balance between overwhelming numbers of new people and our sense of the status quo. Our contemporary repairs have neither benefited ourselves, nor our immigrants, legal or illegal. We eradicated programs that facilitated migrant worker populations, because we felt the systems that had been created took unfair advantage of migrants. Then we had immigration without the benefit of any regulations that should have been aimed at helping the new people establish their place here. Then we tried an amnesty program so that we could turn a new page and start over without really establishing a new system of admittance. How naïve we were. In the meantime, we had a wonderful economy that was a draw for immigration in even greater numbers than we had seen in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
Today we are in the throes of Congress attempting to “give” us a new solution to the problem. We need to applaud their effort. Then we need to look very carefully at their proposal. We are now faced with the same problem that confronted our population in the early Nineteenth Century: our immigrants are keeping themselves separate from the rest of us. This causes huge disruptions in society. We can fix it. We need to teach all of our children the good parts of our history, not just our flaws. A road to citizenship should be strongly encouraged, with a number of requirements that enable the new citizen to be a full participant in our society. We need to require our immigrants to assimilate, especially in language so that we may all discuss things together. Those who would forgo citizenship should have strictures on what they are permitted to reap from our social programs. Assimilation and citizenship does not mean immigrants need to eschew who they are, but it does mean they need to renounce previous allegiances.
I like a good stew. We have all the component parts. Individuals who are separate parts of groups just as the meat and vegetables are cut into pieces. But they need to jump headlong into the cauldron of our society and become part of us. That is when the flavors of each part of the stew marry. That means we all merge in such a way as to be better than any one of us, or small group of us could have been by ourselves, while allowing us to maintain our individuality and independence from each other. Like a good stew it takes time and gentle heat. The gentle heat is the discussion of ideas where we do not agree. The key is that it is a slow heat that allows for us to maintain our integrity and still come to agreements.
Yes, I like a good stew in all its complexity. And I love this country with all its diversity. Neither is perfect, but they are both magnificent.
The last word:
As Suzy indicates, the impact of immigrants has been more or less significant over the history of the United States. This chart based on US Census data shows the number of immigrants as a percentage of the total population in the US. An immigrant, for this purpose, is defined as someone who came into the US (legally or not) since the last census who had not been born here. Numbers prior to 1840 are estimates. The Industrial Revolution and the jobs it created drove historically high immigration up to 1920. After that, repressive immigration laws, the Great Depression, and World War II had a significant impact on immigration rates. Not until the laws were relaxed in the 1960s did immigration recover, and now is steadily moving up towards the historic highs.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1868 primarily to fill a gap in the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery. Driven by President Lincoln to codify the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865. While it abolished slavery, it gave no rights to the freed people. Among other things, the Fourteenth Amendment states that anyone born in the United States is, simply by that fact, a citizen of the United States. At a stroke all prior slaves and, more importantly, their current and future children, were citizens with equal protection. While primarily focused on the plight of freed slaves, the writers were well aware that this Amendment would also apply to the children of immigrants. Immigration was rising rapidly after the Civil War, and those people needed to be assimilated into our culture. Making the children citizens and providing public education was, as Suzy stated, the easiest way to assimilate a family. In 1868, immigrants came to the US to stay. Maybe a few would get back to the “old country” to say goodbye to a dying relative, but they all knew it was essentially a one way trip.
This is no longer true. Modern transportation enables someone to drive, walk or fly into the US, have a child, and head home a week later never to return. That child is a US citizen, yet that child is likely to have no opportunity to learn our history or our culture. They have the right to come back 20 years later; no matter what attitude they have about the US.
In the developed world, only the United States and Canada have such a broad definition of citizenship. Personally, I think it is past time to rethink that provision. What do you think?
Keep your sense of humor.