America has long been considered a nation of immigrants, but it seems we have grown weary of that distinction. As Congress considers legislation to toughen the country’s stance on illegal immigrants, hundreds of thousands of such people – already living and working in this country – took to the streets in protest last week. The need to reform U.S. immigration policy is evident, but at the heart of this immigration debate lies more than politics or economics. Emotion – the worries of some citizens that immigrants will undermine American culture and the strong pride in America’s immigrant past and present that others feel – is what drives politicians and activists in this cause. There is a push for assimilation, a push for inclusion and a push to get rid of anyone who speaks accented English, but the roots of this immigration debate lie in culture and in the question of what makes an American.
Last week’s rallies across the country showed the growing political power of a long-silent demographic. Immigrants – mainly from Latin America – and their supporters took to the streets to demand not only legal reform, but also to show the magnitude of their social and economic contributions to the country. The reaction from those wary of the growing immigrant population tended to dwell on the symbolic, mostly with great indignation – how dare protestors wave Mexican flags alongside American ones?
A well-timed CD release of a Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” the week before drew the attention of even President Bush, who let eager media outlets know that he believed the anthem should be sung only in English. Here in Michigan, state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk (R-Portage) pushed for a bill to make English the state’s official language in February, following in the path of 27 other states.
Certainly the ability to speak English is an important skill, and English as a second language programs for children and adults alike are important ways to ensure all residents can speak the language. But the symbolic stances taken by overzealous Congressmen do little to teach anyone English, and only further marginalize immigrants who may still be in the process of learning the language.
President Bush countered the day of protests and boycotts with a symbolic act of his own – the annual proclamation of May 1 as “Loyalty Day,” a national holiday made official by Congress in 1958, when Cold War fever engulfed even the simplest of America’s actions. Loyalty Day was informally started in the 1920s as “Americanization Day,” a response to the socialist mobilizations of May Day. Ironically, the message of “reaffirming our allegiance to our nation,” as Bush said this year, was carried out in the immigration rallies by those who are denied legal status. Regardless of country of origin, legal status, or native language, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in peaceful protest are already Americans, simply asking for public and governmental recognition.
A united nation is one thing, a homogenous one is another – yet the reactions to mobilization among immigrants indicate that many Americans still confuse the two. Diversity of cultures, languages, even flags is one of America’s greatest strengths. Rather than trying to exclude groups by defining a mold into which all residents and citizens must fit, it is the responsibility of Americans to embrace immigration as a force that has built its past, and one which will continue to shape its future.