Strangers in the House

Posted by sepoy on May 10, 2004 · 9 mins read

Last night we watched House of Sand and Fog, which was quite good but over-the-top melodramatic in the end. Short synopsis: Kathy is on a downward spiral and the county repossesses her house and sells it on a technical mistake. The buyer, Behrani, wants to fix-it-up and resell it a market price. Kathy wants her house back. The conflict is set up and ends badly. The best thing about the movie was the dialectic of immigrant/native in contemporary America. Gandhi (i can never remember his name, ben kingsley) plays an Iranian ex-Colonel who works 2 jobs to keep the veneer of respectability on his family. There are some good themes where the American Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and her non-existent support structure is contrasted to the much more genial and welcoming Iranian family. The movie highlights that some of the animosity of Kathy and Lester (Ron Eldred) is due to the Iranians being immigrants in America and invaders in their house. Behrani enforces the separation between the groups by haranguing to his son on Americans and how superior he is compared to them.

After watching the movie, I kept thinking that the conversations about Immigration in the US, revolve solely around tired cliche'd pronouncements of "they will take our job and have us speaking spanish" or "all of us are immigrants who went through the melting pot". And that is the civilized debate about "LEGAL" immigration. The illegals, according to Lou Dobbs, should just be thrown in the firey moat that ought to be constructed around continental USA. However, for the legal immigration, the examination of assimilation is either naive or non-existent. On the one hand, it is naively assumed that all immigrants in one-or-two generations adopt Americana as a cultural and societal source. The other, alarmist, side posits that this will not happen (angry glance at the Hispanics and Muslims) and America ought to protect the American Dream by killing bi-lingual education (and your host, Samuel Huntington) and affirming it's Judeo-Christian heritage (ladies and gentlemen: Bill O'Reilly).
A reasonable dialogue would look at the immigration patterns of Irish, Russian, Polish and Jewish settlements in USA and examine the ways in which they adhered to their unique identities in the face of the supposed assimilation pressure. Anyone in Chicago, can attest that the Irish and Polish population are proud holders of their distant (or not-so distant) heritage and proclaim thusly in all public venue. Rightly so. And yet, similiar efforts by the Mexican and Arab communities casts them in anti-American and anti-Western roles.

This morning the Guardian has an excellent extract (the blogging gods smiled on me) from Robert Winder's Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain [not yet available] about Jewish settlement in London during the late 19th/early 20th century. It highlights the paranoia and racism with which the British society viewed the "hordes" of incoming Jews. Keep in mind, that during this period the British Empire had already classified and distilled the essence of the barbarian Moslems and effimenate Bengalis in India - their greatest source of revenue. An extract from the extract:

Popular novelists leapt into the fray, inspired by silly predictions that more than 7 million immigrants would soon swamp these shores. The visionary socialist HG Wells captured this aspect of the zeitgeist in 1898 with his fantasy The War of the Worlds, which described an apocalyptic battle between civilisation and alien invaders. A few years later, in 1902, he spoke with enthusiasm about eugenics, controlling human breeding in order to eliminate "inferior races" for ever. "If I had my way," wrote DH Lawrence, "I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace ... I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them all in, the sick, the halt, the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile a weary thanks." In the decades to come, such vivid fantasies would find the most squalid expression.

Soon there was a virulent chorus of voices raised in protest at the process (1887 was a year of heavy unemployment). The Evening News began a campaign against the "foreign flood", and the Conservative MPs for Bow and Stepney campaigned fiercely against their new constituents, whom they called "Yids", and managed to create a noisy faction in their party that demanded action. "East of Aldgate one walks into a foreign town," said Major Evans Gordon, the vociferous MP for Stepney. The modern Englishman lived, he felt, "under the constant danger of being driven from his home, pushed out into the streets, not by the natural increase of our own population but by the off-scum of Europe". The parliamentary hopeful David Hope Kyd wailed that intermarriage was leading to "the extermination of the British working man in the East End of London" - a sentiment that might have had more force had he shown any sympathy for the working man before".

Here now, is an extract from Samuel Huntington's most recent screed Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity [thank you google cache].

In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives. Americans like to boast of their past success in assimilating millions of immigrants into their society, culture, and politics. But Americans have tended to generalize about immigrants without distinguishing among them and have focused on the economic costs and benefits of immigration, ignoring its social and cultural consequences. As a result, they have overlooked the unique characteristics and problems posed by contemporary Hispanic immigration. The extent and nature of this immigration differ fundamentally from those of previous immigration, and the assimilation successes of the past are unlikely to be duplicated with the contemporary flood of immigrants from Latin America. This reality poses a fundamental question: Will the United States remain a country with a single national language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture? By ignoring this question, Americans acquiesce to their eventual transformation into two peoples with two cultures (Anglo and Hispanic) and two languages (English and Spanish).

The impact of Mexican immigration on the United States becomes evident when one imagines what would happen if Mexican immigration abruptly stopped. The annual flow of legal immigrants would drop by about 175,000, closer to the level recommended by the 1990s Commission on Immigration Reform chaired by former U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Illegal entries would diminish dramatically. The wages of low-income U.S. citizens would improve. Debates over the use of Spanish and whether English should be made the official language of state and national governments would subside. Bilingual education and the controversies it spawns would virtually disappear, as would controversies over welfare and other benefits for immigrants. The debate over whether immigrants pose an economic burden on state and federal governments would be decisively resolved in the negative. The average education and skills of the immigrants continuing to arrive would reach their highest levels in U.S. history. The inflow of immigrants would again become highly diverse, creating increased incentives for all immigrants to learn English and absorb U.S. culture. And most important of all, the possibility of a de facto split between a predominantly Spanish-speaking United States and an English-speaking United States would disappear, and with it, a major potential threat to the country's cultural and political integrity.

Doesn't look like the argument has changed much in 100+ years, has it?