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Press one for English... Call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

May 19, 2010, 7:40 am
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Changing attitudes toward new immigrants in America
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by Reynold n. Mason

America has come a long way since the naturalization Act of 1790 took effect, limiting  US citizenship to “free white persons” of  ‘good moral character”.  In spite of that ominous pronouncement, the US has been a magnet for immigrants from nations across the globe.  By 1950 the US popuation consisted of 55 million persons of foreign stock.  Up to that time, most immigrants, 98 per cent, were Europeans.  Today, 50 per cent of immigrants are from Latin America, and 12.5 percent of the US population were foreign born as of 2008,according to the US Census Bureau,


For the first time in our history illegal immigrants outnumber legal immigrants.  In a weak economy and with unemployment approaching 10 per cent, immigration, an emotional issue to begin with, has become even more divisive.  The need for reform of the country’s immigration laws is nothing less than dire. Yet congress and President Obama are handcuffed by the toxic politics of the issue.  To push reform now is to anger conservatives who want more restrictive immigration laws;  to fail to do so invites attacks from the left and the real possibility of losing Hispanic votes in the mid-term elections looming on the political horizon.  President Obama recognizes this and has said bluntly, that he believed “congress did not have the appetite” to take up immigration reform this year.


But the flood of illegal immigrants, 12 million according to the US   Census Bureau, has aroused passions, particularly in border states which have now begun passing laws designed to stem the tide of illegal immigrants  by restricting access to driver licenses and other public benefits.  The Arizona immigration law in particular, has drawn the ire of proponents of immigration reform, as well as those worried that it would legalize racial profiling.  The ACLU has weighed in, filing a challenge to the law in Federal court, and sister states have imposed boycotts on Arizona in protest. Many feel illegal immigrants get undeserved services in short supply that should be reserved for citizens.  In tough economic times immigrants are blamed for taking food out of the mouth of Americans because there isn’t enough to go around. Internet chat rooms are abuzz..   Said one comment: “Today I went to a free dental clinic; I was the only one of American descent.  I was disgusted because there are too  many   people entering the country illegally and still being given access to government services such as medical, dental, welfare, housing………”


Others blame illegal migrants for taking jobs that would otherwise go to American workers. The truth is, most Americans would not work in bloody slaughter houses de-boning chicken, or on farms picking strawberries or lettuce at the wages paid to illegal immigrants.  One man said this about his experience:  “I worked in the cotton fields at least 8 hours a day 6 days a week in the early 90’s…… there were few blacks ……even fewer white folk and mostly Hispanics. It’s backbreaking labor for little pay……. I can’t see Americans going back to doing that type of work again unless the pay was significantly hire”[sic]


Others are unwilling to deal with the changes that immigration has wrought in our daily lives. In some localities, such as Buford and Norcross Georgia, even street signs are in languages unfamiliar to most. People are angry that when seeking customer service they hear a recording commanding them to “press one for English”.     “I can’t stand to see people flying a flag here other than the American flag…. I believe that if you are here as a citizen or resident or whatever, there should be some attempt made to assimilate”. That comment on an internet forum yesterday expresses a gripe many have with immigrants.


But America is no longer the homogenous society it once was. Without conscious effort, we have adopted what is best from immigrants. Whether it’s Jamaican jerk chicken, pasta primavera or Hungarian goulash, most Americans have tasted the best cuisine brought to us by immigrants.


We should not expect immigrants to check their “cultural baggage at the golden gate” I feel this passionately.  I am a naturalized American citizen of Caribbean stock. Need I turn my back on my Caribbean heritage and refuse to remit American dollars to my family back home? Must I disown Bob Marley and Sparrow or give up rice and peas for burger and fries to prove I’m a true American? I think not. Immigrants have made and re-made this country. A look back at history should put at our minds at ease. The Irish, Germans and Italians have all come, adapted and left their indelible mark on American culture. So too will our new immigrants. Our political leaders should work through this crisis by compromise and with compassion.  Those who today advocate closing our borders, should they succeed, would simply sweep the problem under the dirty rug of prejudice. It will be less visible, but it will “fester like a sore” Enforcement will stifle immigration, but like Jim Crow or apartheid, it will not make it go away. To borrow the words of an anonymous internet comment: “I don’t see what’s so wrong about people having pride in their roots...I would sometimes be annoyed when I see a Puerto Rican flag in someone’s rear view mirror. But I come to respect and understand the pride that one has in their heritage... the great thing about America is that rest of us came from somewhere else first...” .  Well said Anonymous.

Author: Reynold Mason
Reynold N. Mason teaches law courses at Zenover Educational Institute In Atlanta, Georgia. He has been a judge on New York City Civil Court and, a Justice on New York State Supreme Court. Mason has been an adjunct professor of law at Medgar Evers College and Monroe College in New York. He has authored several legal opinions published in New York Miscellaneous Reports and New York Official Reports as well as the New York Law Journal. He lives in Atlanta.
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