Arizona’s SB 1070 law has brought the contentious debate on immigration under a bright spotlight. One of the themes in this debate is immigration’s effect on the cultural composition of the United States. Some staunch, anti-immigration advocates have suggested immigration be stopped completely so that immigrants currently in the country are given a chance to assimilate into the American culture. Speaking at the Tea Party convention this past February, former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo denounced the “cult of multiculturalism” in the U.S. today.
I understand where the cultural argument comes from; certainly, there exist pockets of people who have not — despite having taken the citizenship oath — pledged full allegiance to the United States. But these people are in the minority of all immigrants. Legal immigration is overall greatly beneficial to the U.S. Moreover, it is an asset precisely because it drives cultural diversity. In other words, Tancredo is wrong.
My family, I believe, serves as an excellent example of an immigrant family that has balanced its dual cultures while making a successful transition to becoming U.S. citizens. Indian culture has undoubtedly played a prominent role in my family. This is evidenced by my parents’ recently installed grand, several-thousand-dollar ventilation system for our kitchen to protect the inside of our house from the sometimes overpowering smell associated with cooking Indian food. We’ve lived in the Western world for 15 years but my parents love cooking Indian food — which I’m more than happy to eat — enjoy Indian movies and music and maintain a network of friends who’ve also emigrated from India. When my friends came over during my childhood, they’d learn a little about Indian culture, whether through tasting my mother’s cooking or by examining the different artifacts around the living room — an experience I’ve also had visiting my own friends of varying cultures.
But don’t get me wrong; I didn’t grow up in a “mini-India,” insulated from the real United States. In fact, the holiday that my family gets most excited about celebrating every year is Thanksgiving, when my cousins and I cook a turkey that sits next to both mashed potatoes and palak paneer — an Indian dish — at our dinner table. My father loves to listen to 80’s music and we grill when the weather is good. But while this all portrays an incorporation of American culture into the Indian background my parents grew up in, what really makes my family an example of successful immigration is the fact that we’re all educated voters. NPR plays — and is discussed — as the vent chugs away while my mother and I are in the kitchen. Sometimes, we watch cable news — Fox or MSNBC, depending on the day — during dinner. Despite having lived in India for the majority of their adult lives, a discussion of U.S. foreign policy stirs more passions in my parents than a debate over the Kashmiri conflict that has been the hot button issue of the Indian subcontinent for decades. My parents preserve a uniquely Indian-American household that I’m glad I was exposed to.
America is a melting pot. The January 2010 issue of the Economist offered an interesting characterization of American identity: “Inclusive nationalism”. According to the magazine, “most believe anyone can become American. Almost nobody in Japan thinks that anyone can become Japanese.” This mixed identity is what makes the U.S. a uniquely attractive destination to potential immigrants who, according to both well-known academics and commentators like Thomas Friedman, could contribute and have contributed to America’s economic growth. Allowing a free flow of skilled immigrants may be necessary to staying competitive as the rest of the world gains clout. There’s no reason for a nation that has been built on immigration to change its outlook now. Immigrants don’t corrode the national identity — they contribute to a character that has allowed the country to flourish.
We shouldn’t let the actions of a few bad apples — like Faizal Shahzad, for example — misguide the immigration conversation. Assimilation, though it is most definitely important, is a delicate balance. Advocating strict and complete integration could cost America the bursting flavor that has made it so appealing and successful. It’s possible for an immigrant to be both one hundred percent American without completely losing touch with their original culture.
Harsha Panduranga is an LSA junior.
Jan 2010 Economist
The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman