Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Huddled masses II

It’s probably too late for this career change, but I should have been a bartender. Especially if they get all the free drinks that they want. But I’m guessing that they don’t. After all, if they are employees, I’m sure drinking on the job would be discouraged. And, if the bartender is an owner/operator, he or she probably doesn’t want to cut into profits (or dull his or her management skills) by drinking up the supplies. Gee, this is some kind of record. I managed to digress from the topic at hand in the very sentence. Before there even was a topic at hand.

The point I was trying to making was that, like any good bartender, I have this annoying tendency to agree with everybody. On just about any topic being covered in the nightly news. And when you turn on the news these days, it seems like it’s always the same news story, over and over. But enough about Paris Hilton.

Another story has been dominating the American news as well. That’s the one about the McCain-Kennedy compromise immigration bill which, depending on the hour, is either dead, coming back to life or has already been passed without the media being alerted. Just about one year ago I wrote about this same Frankenstein bill and, surprisingly, what I wrote back then looks just about as apt now as it tried to be then: “In the end, Congress will either pass some kind of compromise immigration bill that the politicians will hail as a success, as they pat themselves on the back in hearty self-congratulation (just as they did the last time in the 1980s) or they won’t, and politicians of all stripes will try to get political mileage out of blaming the other side for the failure.” Hey, that’s pretty good. Maybe I should give this political punditry thing a try.

For those who did not read that previous commentary or who read it but do not remember it or who are too lazy to click on the link above, I pointed out the two movies that summed up the worldview of the two sides in the debate. The “pro-immigrant” (or “open borders” or “anti-security”) crowd can be understood by watching Gregory Nava’s 1983 film El Norte. The “secure borders” (or “anti-immigrant” or “nativist”) side can be more or less summed up with a viewing of John Milius’s 1984 flick Red Dawn.

Now I may appear to be “stacking the deck” (or “tipping my hand” or “giving up the game”) by these choices. After all, El Norte is an uplifting and earnest tale, realistically told, about the very real and human plight of illegal immigrants. Red Dawn, on the other hand, is a mindless action epic, based on an alternative reality that didn’t occur (Soviets and Cubans Nicaraguans invading Colorado?), and starring a bunch of attractive (then) young actors like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey. It was kind of like The Outsiders with guns. (“Hey, Sodapop! Pass the ammo!”)

But the truth is that, like the good bartender I should have been, I can easily see both sides. On one hand, I am extremely sympathetic to immigrants. Mainly because I am one myself (although not in the U.S.). I have not only dealt with immigration bureaucracies in three different countries on my own behalf, but I have also dealt with the U.S. immigration behemoth in support of my foreign-born wife who, during a brief period of her life, actually thought she would like to have a Green Card. I was amused by a recent column by conservative opinionator Mark Steyn, in which he recounted how National Public Radio’s Juan Williams accused him of being “anti-immigrant” on one of those pundit segments on Fox News. “Er, actually, I am an immigrant,” wrote the Australian-born Steyn. But, when politicians and commentators talk about “immigrants” in the context of the “immigration problem,” they aren’t talking about immigrants like Steyn or me or my wife—the ones who fill out endless reams of paperwork, stand in endless queues and pay out exorbitant fees for one or more pieces of paper giving one permission to live in another country. They are talking, specifically, about hordes of mostly dark-skinned people who are in the U.S. without any paperwork that gives them, as non-citizens, the right to live and work there.

And I am sympathetic to those people. Having grown up in central California and having learned Spanish from an early age and had many friends who were Mexican or Mexican-American and having lived a year in South America, I feel something of an affinity for the part of the world where most of the people in question come from.

At the same time, I understand the other camp. In the small town in which I grew up, there was always a Mexican presence, beginning in modern times with a community founded by immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution. In addition to the English and Spanish-speaking communities, there was the German-speaking community that my mother belonged to. But over time, the town has taken on an overwhelmingly Mexican character. It is no wonder if the remaining Anglo residents feel somewhat under siege culturally when every shop in the town center has its signage in Spanish and English has become the optional second language. But the reality is that all these newcomers would not be there if there was not work for them to do. When my mother used to complain about how “the Mexicans are taking over,” I would point out that California used to be part of Mexico and not that many generations ago. “We stole it fair and square!” she would snap back defiantly.

America’s diversity and regular infusions of immigrant blood have always been part of the country’s strength. That is why no one serious is arguing for closing the doors to new (legal) immigrants. Nor does anyone argue that the borders don’t need to be better policed. (If a TB patient on a “no fly” list can get out and in so easily, what about the next terrorist hijacker?) The questions are entirely about which ones and how many to let in and what to do about the ones already in the country illegally. But the so-called “nativists” have a point too. If large numbers of immigrants are entering the country and not assimilating, are we not at risk of creating nations with the nation that could one day divide culturally and politically from the rest of country. It has happened before in the world—for instance in places like Kosovo and in (former) Mexican territories like Texas and California, which were flooded with immigrants from the U.S. Trying to strip newcomers of their identity and their culture is counterproductive, but if a country wants to survive, it does have to require some minimum level of assimilation from immigrants. This doesn’t meant that the country won’t be changed by immigration. You wouldn’t want to avoid that—even if you could. But there has to be a minimum level of cultural and social cohesion for the country to survive as nation. And, you know what? Most newcomers who plan to stay permanently, even many in the first generation, actually do want to assimilate.

Political leaders and the media have been portraying the new immigration bill generally as a good thing. There is a feel-good factor about the fact that it is a rare compromise across the political spectrum. There is also a mindset that a new law equals a solution and failure to pass a law equals, well, failure. But opponents of the bill remember all too well when we heard all this before. The immigration bill passed in 1986 was supposed to solve the immigration problem once and for all. Hordes of illegal aliens have flooded into the country ever since. Can you blame people old enough to remember that for being cynical?

Lawmakers (and the journalists that cover them) frequently fall into the trap of confusing legislation with reality. That is how Al Gore became the butt of a joke, when he spoke of “inventing” the internet when what he meant was that he was involved in some authorizing legislation. He is by no means the first or last to confuse the two. Politicians have learned nothing of the example of 11th century King Canute, who got a foot wash after commanding the sea to roll back, for the benefit of his overly flattering entourage. Congress can certainly tinker with the quotas that determine which prospective immigrants get in legally and which ones do not. But affecting the flow of undocumented people in and out of the country is another matter. This is largely a question of economics. You cannot legislate away people’s natural impulse to find a better life. If Congress really wanted to curtail illegal flows of people, it would deal with what is drawing them into the country, i.e. employers who hire illegal workers. But neither political party really has the stomach for that. The Democrats, as a largely pro-immigrant party, see the newcomers as one way toward rebuilding a majority for their party. Republicans, as a largely pro-business party, don’t really want to cut off the supply of cheap labor. That means that all the amnesties or paths to citizenship or guest worker programs won’t change much, in terms of the numbers of illegals in the country. The silver lining is, as long as people keep flooding into the U.S. (legally or illegally), it’s a sure indicator that America is—as chosen by people voting with their feet—still the most desirable country in which to live and work.

If you want to see a recent movie about immigrants in America that falls somewhere between the extremes of El Norte and Red Dawn, you could do worse than to seek out Mira Nair’s The Namesake, which deals with the first two generations of an Indian family that settles in suburban New York. It captures as well as any movie the process by which people from other cultures become American and how America is changed by other cultures.

-S.L., 14 June 2007

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive