Creative Destruction

April 6, 2006

The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

Filed under: Current Events,International Politics — Off Colfax @ 9:19 pm

In a comment on this post by Colorado Luis back at the end of December, Andrew of the Wash Park Prophet wrote one sentence that really made me start to think about how we on the left really view the immigration issue. So much so that I saved it for when I could set aside enough time to seriously finish thinking about it, or at least get a good head start.

The United States is well known for its success in integrating immigrants into its society (call it a melting pot or a salad bowl as you will), and birthright citizenship has been an important part of that success. [Emphasis mine.]

Is this a case of painting everything with the same broad rose-colored brush? Or is it simply a case of a different point of view, and one which I do not necessarily possess?

You see, I have a lot of face-to-face contact with a high number of immigrants, from all areas of the world, due to my area of employment. Nigerians and Eritreans, Germans and Mexicans, Thai and Chinese: I see them all, and on a regular basis. So regular that, for at least half the time, I know their usual requests for items kept behind the counter. And for those that do not have a language barrier, I learn a bit about their families, their homelands, and (occasionally) their languages. And that last part is the telling one for me, as pretty much every non-English-native speaker is either making the effort to be fluent in English, or have already done so. Some have progressed to the point where their native accents show very rarely. And the exception that proves the rule tends to be Spanish-language speakers. Rarely do I have to delve into my pathetic knowledge of German in order to assist a customer. And never have I been required to dredge up the few words of Arabic or Twi or Farsi or Thai that I've picked up over time. So why is it that my Spanish has progressed by leaps and bounds in comparison to what I had learned in high school?

Every other immigrant group, regardless of where they originated from, has allowed themselves to be culturally assimilated into the standard American manner of speech. That includes my own ancestors, soon after they passed through the gates of Ellis Island. They put aside their dependence on their native tongues; Croatian, German, Dutch, Italian, and Gaelic (the latter of which was my great-great-grandmother Aida NicLeod, who came from the Isle of Man in April, 1866); and set themselves to the oft-times arduous task of learning the language of their new nation. They wanted to fit in, to prosper, to be Americans.

This is usually called the "Melting Pot Effect" by American sociologists. Yet it is not quite an accurate description of what once happened with immigrant populations. I prefer to call it the Merry-Go-Round Effect, as there was a definite cyclical series of events involved. First, an individual would come into this country from Insert Other Country Here. Next would come a period of learning about how things worked in their new country, an initial assimilation for such concepts as culture and language skills, and so forth. Both during and after this process would come relative prosperity in this country, if not outright economic success, and fully becoming a citizen of this country. This, in turn, would inspire more immigrants, often from the same town or village as the original immigrant, to come and achieve the same successes for themselves. This trend is repeated pretty much ad infinitum until the present day and, for many areas of the world, continues to work well.

So why do so many immigrants from anyplace south of San Diego decline to ride? Personally, I place some of the blame on the true Liberal Left, if that's not a repetitive descriptor. The base philosophical viewpoint, particularly among the Politically Correct crowd, is that all cultures are valuable to the nation, and should be encouraged. For some reason, this is extended to the language barrier: those that don't want to learn [insert language here] in order to "assist the immigrant population in their quest to create a new life while maintaining the cultures and traditions of their original homelands", as one of my former college professors (who we actually called The Flaming PC Liberal Airhead behind her back) once rattled off.

And, in truth, most Spanish speakers don't need to learn English, as there's been more than enough accommodation for that language in everyday life. Government-issued forms almost always have a Spanish-language counterpart. Business proudly declare in their advertisements "Se habla Espanol!" to drag in those other-lingual shoppers, even when they don't spell it right. The fastest-growing broadcast media segments in the country are those with Spanish-language programming, whether in radio or television. And in the majority of major American cities, there are significant chunks of the area where you can not hear a single word in English spoken on the streets.

Now, I will admit that this is not a particularly unique concept, as there are at least two other immigrant groups that have done the same thing. However, the immigrant areas of San Francisco and New York known as Chinatown and the areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco known as Little Tokyo are just that: specific geographic areas where those specific national cultures, including languages, are maintained and celebrated. Additionally, and particularly with those of Chinese descent, those areas tend to be very insular and mostly self-sufficient except for in areas such as city services: water and power, public safety, etc. Outside of those specific areas, immigrants from those cultures have, for the vast majority, undergone the process of assimilation into American culture and society. And further, some of these areas were founded in times where there was a direct distrust, if not outright hatred, of that specific ethnic group. Which would, in all actuality, bring them in line with a third group of somewhat insular immigrants that were not well accepted, but now considered the quintessential ideal, by some American citizens: the Irish. (After all, how many non-Irish are out there that celebrate St. Patrick's Day, or, if you prefer the original spelling of St. Padraig compared to non-Mexicans that celebrate Cinco de Mayo?)

So why do immigrants from Latin and South America seem to bypass part of the American Merry-Go-Round and not assimilate? As I wrote earlier in this post, some might not feel that they need to, due to the accomodiations our society has allowed for them. Yet there is a second factor, ease of access, that seems to take a part in this. For almost every other immigrant group, there is a definite barrier involved, not too unlike the great big wall that some portions of American society wish to place along the southern border, called an ocean. An oceanic barrier is much more than just a wall, however. It becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle for those wanting to come to this country, and so they must do so via legal routes. (There are extra-legal methods to cross the oceanic barriers of course, such as the Cuban rafts washing up on South Florida beaches. Few barriers are perfect.) This extra effort required for legal immigration has, perhaps, caused a greater emphasis on the need to assimilate. After all, they choose to become strangers in a strange land, and becoming a part of that land would be a form of a safety blanket.

Yet with the relative ease of illegally crossing the border by land, perhaps that need is not felt. After all, some areas of Mexico have been almost completely depopulated due to immigration, whether legal or illegal, into the United States. Of course, this begs a question in my mind: Why would they not choose to become citizens of this country, particularly seeing as how there is very little left for them back in their home towns? Why risk being on the recieving end of a deportation proceeding if there is nothing left for you to go back to?

This point is probably the most perplexing for me, particularly in light of the "Jumping The Line" point I made at the end of my previous post on the subject. Foreign nationals that are already in this country, legally or illegally, have a significant advantage in applying for citizenship compared to those still residing in their home countries. So why is it that there seems to be no significant impetus within the Hispanic community towards gaining citizenship here in the United States?

I know there's someone out there that can provide some insight into this thought process. After all, that is the magic of a blog. The question is, will they be able to find this. And if they do, will they set aside the seemingly automatic distrust of any gringo who tries to ask them about why illegal immigrants do what they do.

(Crossposted from Left Off Colfax.)



  1. In the early to mid 20th century, there were Jews who moved from Europe to Brooklyn and never had to speak any language but Yiddish. There were Yiddish-language newspapers – not just one, the market was large enough to support several competing papers – Yiddish book publishers, Yiddish theater companies, etc.. Why didn’t they learn English? Because they didn’t have to, in order to get by. Inevitably, however, their children and grandchildren learned English, and now Yiddish is pretty much a dead language.

    Why do many Spanish-speaking immigrants not learn English? My guess is, because they don’t have to. The Spanish-speaking community in California, like the Yiddish-speaking community in 1920s NYC, is large enough so that there’s no need. Especially for folks who are working in the US but still have their families back in their homeland, or who are planning to return home after earning money in the US, or both, there’s not much reason to learn English. Or to become citizens.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 7, 2006 @ 12:04 am | Reply

  2. But in the case of the insular Jewish communities of New York, there was an enormously strong cultural value for children: achieve the highest level of education you possibly can (to the doctoral level if you have even a fraction of the requisite talent) and become an intellectual. In order to do that, the children of the first-generation immigrants were forced to learn English, or limit their scholarly aspirations to Jewish religious scholarship, which was a highly respected field but one which could not possibly accommodate all the bright young Jews who wished to become knowledge workers.

    In contrast, while there’s no reason to think there’s a lack of intellectual talent in the Spanish-speaking immigrant community (quite the contrary), there is also no evidence for any similar drive for exogamous career seeking. There’s plenty of cultural pressure to achieve success and to be an economically productive person, but there’s no barrier to doing that within the self-sustaining community. To the contrary, the language learning curve required to go outside the community makes it more profitable for most young business people to just stay with what they know, if English hasn’t been otherwise foisted on them.

    It is this potentially permanently-perpetual nature of the Spanish-only community that is problematic. (Sorry to everyone in the first three rows, who are now all drowning.)

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2006 @ 12:56 am | Reply

  3. It’s clear you’re given some thought to this topic. You appear to be wondering aloud about some trends you observe but hold back from saying “it ought to be this way or that.” Your restraint is admirable.

    The longstanding idea of the so-called American experiment being, among other things, a melting pot gives most of us a certain white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant bias, since that’s where most immigrants came from when the continent was being (re)colonized. Now that the flow is from all points of the globe, it appears that the dominant culture is soon to be a minority in numbers, though perhaps not yet in significance. Many American cities have already changed to a majority Hispanic demographic, whereas in Europe, trends point to a majority Muslim demographic.

    In observing that, I feel it is neither here nor there, neither good nor bad, but just is. Demographic change can’t be stemmed, guided, or controlled by policy or any other mechanism. But I suspect that it will soon become a touchstone issue in the U.S., and perhaps in Europe, as members of the dominant culture realize they have become a de facto demographic minority.

    Comment by Brutus — April 7, 2006 @ 1:49 am | Reply

  4. Demographic change can’t be stemmed, guided, or controlled by policy or any other mechanism.

    Huh? We could cut off immigration from everyplace but Mexico tomorrow, and we wouldn’t have the slightest difficulty enforcing it. So I assume that my commonsense interpretation of your words can’t be right. What do you really mean to say?

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2006 @ 2:01 am | Reply

  5. In observing that, I feel it is neither here nor there, neither good nor bad, but just is.

    Huh? Do you live in a world divorced from cause and effect? If the culture of the US changes does that not have consequences, whether they are good or bad? Or do you subscribe to the voodoo of cultural relativism?

    I’ll echo Robert, what do you really mean to say?

    Comment by TangoMan — April 7, 2006 @ 3:07 am | Reply

  6. In observing that, I feel it is neither here nor there, neither good nor bad, but just is.

    I genuinely wonder how you can feel that way. Nothing much worries you? At least in the case of Europe, I personally very much like the fact that men and women are legally (and in most issues practically) equal, people are not slain for believing in wrong things or criticizing a religion (at least not by the dominant culture, the discussion on homosexuality and homosexuals is on the level of civil union or marriage, instead of death or prison, neither nature nor children are considered the exclusive property of adult men.

    For starters. Pardon me for wanting to preserve everything that is good in the European liberal democracy.

    Comment by tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 3:08 am | Reply

  7. Parentheses should be closed after )at least not by the dominant culture).

    Comment by tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 3:10 am | Reply

  8. Argh! Edit for the rest of us, Adam!

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 3:12 am | Reply

  9. Brutus, if you want to know my actual opinions on the subject of illegal immigration, click on the link where it says my “previous post on the subject”. But basically, my opinion can be brought through with kindergarden-range ethical education:

    No Jumping In Line

    There are 10 million people that want to come into this country via legal means and are waiting to do just that, and every single illegal immigrant is violating the ethics that is gently eased into the thought processes of every single American kindergarden student. (Sorry, Tuomas. Don’t know if they have that rule as part of the various curricula in Finland or not.)

    And Robert has it exactly right: We could completely break off all legal immigration into this country in the time it takes the Department of Homeland Security to pull a plug on the INS mainframe. And it still wouldn’t have any effect on illegal immigration except for possibly make it grow by a significant fraction of the legal immigration rate.

    And I really don’t care about the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethic, especially seeing as how I’m Unitarian in religious viewpoint. My main concern is that people who want to get into this country should do it just like my ancestors did: the legal way.

    Comment by offcolfax — April 7, 2006 @ 3:18 am | Reply

  10. (Sorry, Tuomas. Don’t know if they have that rule as part of the various curricula in Finland or not.)

    Hmm, starting to feel that’s all I talk about (Robert provoked me!)?

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 3:31 am | Reply

  11. It is, btw, and I share your viewpoint. Illegal immigrants hurt would-be legal immigrants with their actions.

    And as the number of immigrants in the society increases, anti-immigration populism usually gains votes… And if at the same time existing illegal immigrants receive amnesty, the situation is completely unfair. Strong border control combined with giving prices to those who manage to cross the border illegally creates a anti-humanitarian incentive system, and rewards wrong type of behaviour.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 3:36 am | Reply

  12. I failed to provide a context for my comment on demographic change. Sorry. I’m thinking of very broad, long-term effects that manifest over generations or even centuries and millennia. Short-term behaviors such as slamming borders shut will have short-term effects, to be sure, but I believe they will wash out over time as people adapt and learn to overcome obstacles to geographical relocation. (The drug trade might be instructive here.) Do we really want those short-term effects anyway? I would say no, but I probably differ here from most.

    With respect to whether we should judge change itself as good or bad, I clearly think that many changes now underway are bad. However, I don’t beleive that a particular demographic that has experienced some level of success and/or hegemony has any reason to expect that success will or must continue or that that success is evidence of any inherent superiority. Protection of the status quo is normal enough, but not especially rational. That’s where I’m a cultural relativist, I suppose.

    Again, I am thinking in fairly broad terms. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” comes to mind. He traces quite a few effects over a period of some 13,000 years. Changes occurring within that timeframe and within narrower timeframes (even as short as a century or few decades) can be observed in hindsight, but it’s unwise to believe that we (mankind) can effectively plan, manage, or control them. It’s not within our nature to have the sort of wisdom and restraint to do so, as it typically requires a fairly radical reduction of breeding and consumption patterns.

    Comment by Brutus — April 7, 2006 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

  13. Sorry, but your assertion that Spanish-speaking immigrants don’t bother to learn the language simply isn’t true. For more on the topic check out Migrant Information Source

    Nevertheless, speaking only English is the predominant pattern by the third generation

    Basically, first-generation immigrants (anywhere, from anywhere) don’t assimilate much at all, largely because it’s hard to assimilate as an adult. But their children tend to assimilate very well. The grandchildren often know nothing of the “homeland” – the place they grow up is their homeland.

    Every generation in America has seen some particular group of immigrants demonized, usually the biggest group. It’s hard to imagine a time when calling the Irish stupid, lazy, drunken, white trash was the norm. As has been noted elsewhere, the only immigrants who totally failed to assimilate were the English.

    Comment by Kaethe — April 7, 2006 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  14. It’s hard to imagine a time when calling the Irish stupid, lazy, drunken, white trash was the norm.

    It’s not cool to call the Irish stupid lazy drunken white trash anymore?

    Damn it, someone needs to make a scorecard. I’ve got a garage full of “Paddy Go Home You’re Drunk” picket signs that are useless now.

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2006 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

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