Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Immigrants' labors helped build America

ANNE T. DENOGEAN / Tucson Citizen

Some Arizonans undoubtedly have taken heart from recent news reports - largely speculative - that illegal immigrants are preparing to self-deport to Mexico once the state's tough new employer sanctions law takes effect in January.

Perhaps they should hold off on the good-riddance party and replace it with a history lesson. Any unseemly rejoicing ignores the role immigrants have played in the building of America and the vibrant economy we enjoy.

"This is a nation peopled by the world," said Ronald Takaki, an internationally recognized scholar on multiculturalism.

The factors that "pushed" people out of their countries are varied, but there is one consistent reason the U.S. has "pulled" them here, he said.
We needed them - for their labor - and we still do.

Takaki, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of 11 books, will speak Tuesday evening at the YWCA Tucson.
"The reason I study the past is because I'm concerned about the present and the future. I've spent 40 years of my life as a scholar studying the history of America's diversity, and I want to connect it with what's happening in the present, especially with this raging and, at times, acrimonious debate over illegal immigrants coming from Mexico," he said during a phone interview.

The roots of a multicultural America are found in the earliest colonial days when the English settled among the indigenous peoples in 1607 and a Dutch ship brought in the first 20 Africans for sale, probably, as indentured servants rather than slaves, Takaki wrote in his 1994 book "America in a Different Mirror: A History of Our Diversity."

Slave labor evolved and would become the foundation of the Southern tobacco/cotton agricultural economy.

The Chinese started coming more than 150 years ago, seeking "Gold Mountain," as they called California. A mostly Chinese labor force built the first transcontinental railroad.

"My grandfather came from Japan, and he would not have come here had it not been for the demand for his labor in the cane fields of Hawaii," Takaki said.

The Irish came in large numbers to escape British colonialism. Once here, they labored in factory, construction and domestic positions.

Catholics in a "fiercely" Protestant society, they faced nativist hostility, Takaki wrote.

Still, the lure of the American dream was strong. The Italians, the Poles, the Greeks and the Russians Jews came, as did more Asians from Japan, Korea and the Philippines.

Today's burgeoning Hispanic population is largely a result of Mexicans crossing the border both legally and illegally.

But initially the border crossed them with the American annexation of Texas and the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848 that resulted in the U.S taking over what became California, Nevada and Utah and parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Later, during World War II, the U.S. brought in tens of thousands of Mexican farm laborers to work in our fields and harvest food for the nation, Takaki said.

All these immigrant groups, including Mexicans in our country today, have been met with discrimination and derision.

The Chinese were stereotyped as exotic heathens who could not be assimilated, Takaki wrote. Despite the contributions of the Chinese workers, Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to prohibit the entry of immigrants based on nationality.

The Japanese were placed in internment camps during World War II. The Irish were labeled as convicts and drunks.

The Naturalization Law of 1790 excluded nonwhites from citizenship. The law was on the books until 1952, Takaki said. It prevented his grandfather from ever becoming a citizen.

Each new wave of immigrants has been the easy scapegoat for our nation's ills, whether that be a high unemployment rate or a rising crime rate.

Does any of this sound familiar? We've all heard the arguments about how Mexicans supposedly don't want to learn English. We've seen the commentators who seem to take great joy in reporting on any crime committed by an illegal immigrant, as if that person were representative of the millions who quietly make their homes here.

There's lots of talk these days about the impending destruction of American culture posed by the growing population of Mexican immigrants, but Takaki likes to remind people that much of what we think of as "American" has ethnic origins.

"God Bless America," a song so loved that some Americans would like to see it replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem, was written, Takaki noted, by a Russian Jewish immigrant named Israel Baline, commonly known as Irving Berlin.

I expect to hear from readers who will hit me with the same old refrain: They love legal immigrants, really. But just what part of illegal don't you understand, missy?
My answer is that it's irrelevant when assessing the contributions of Mexican immigrants to the American economy and placing it in a historical context.

No less an expert than Alan Greenspan, the ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has acknowledged their importance to the economy, Takaki said.

The traditional hostility toward immigrants is rooted in a fear of the changing color of America, Takaki said.

Minorities are becoming the majority.

"We really have nothing to fear but this fear itself because diversity is America," Takaki said. "Can you imagine the tremendously successful economy we have today without diversity? These were the workers of the world that transformed the American economy."

Far from being damaged by massive immigration, Takaki said, we are the beneficiaries of it.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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