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From melting pot to wall of shame

Not so long ago, America was called the melting pot. Waves of immigrants flocked to this country seeking a better life, with economic opportunities and personal freedoms not available in their homeland. Immigrants quickly discovered that blending into American society meant learning English and shedding their cultural traditions.But immigrants didn’t throw off their Old World traditions automatically. They often lived in large groups, relying on friends and relatives from back home for emotional and financial support. Melting into our society didn’t always occur until the second generation, when immigrants’ children learned how to adapt to take advantage of what this country had to offer.I remember classmates who were embarrassed by their Italian or Portuguese parents. When their parents came to school functions, kids would nudge them if they used their native language. “Speak English, mom,” they pleaded. One girl in particular was so ashamed of the way her Portuguese mother dressed that she stole the outfits and dumped them in the trash. She also apologized profusely to her friends because of her mother’s odd hairstyle and clunky European shoes.Now “cultural diversity” is the buzz word, and American children are taught to respect traditions other than their own. That’s not a bad thing, but, while accepting cultural differences sounds like a wonderful concept, applying it to everyday living is problematic. Sept. 11 proved this point, when many Americans started questioning why we should respect any culture that shouts “death to the infidels,” especially when we are the infidels.While we know most followers of Islam do not wish to exterminate nonbelievers, Americans would be foolish to tolerate the few who do hold that belief.Overall, America has opened its doors to people from all corners of the globe, integrating their food and customs into our society. However, our neighbors to the south probably think our current immigration policy is anything but tolerant. Certainly, the 700-mile wall being built between this country and Mexico shouts, “Mexicans not welcomed!”Why? What’s the difference? Many U.S. citizens say Mexicans are taking jobs that belong to them. But this hue and cry has been heard whenever a large group of immigrants entered the American work force. For example, in the late 1800s, help-wanted signs posted in New York, Boston and Philadelphia stated, “Irish need not apply.”According to the 1910 census, more than 900,000 Polish immigrants lived in America. The majority of them moved to the Midwest, especially Chicago, taking jobs in steel mills, factories and slaughter houses. While many of these jobs were dangerous and paid low wages, the Polish population was still subjected to the scorn of non-immigrants who felt they, too, were taking jobs away from Americans. The same was true for Italians, Chinese, Russians and other waves of immigrants.Another prejudice Americans have against Mexican immigrants is that they don’t speak English. This, too, was true for most immigrants. My paternal great-grandmother only spoke German when she arrived in Philadelphia, and my maternal grandmother spoke Gaelic when she reached this country in 1922.While large groups of immigrants living in enclaves in L.A. or Miami speak only Spanish, most of them discover it’s necessary to learn English to take advantage of the full economic benefits this country offers.However, a study by the Kaiser Foundation explains why Mexican immigrants face additional prejudice other immigrants never experienced. It’s a geographic fact, the land connection between Mexico and the United States allows undocumented workers to enter this country freely. And the study showed few American citizens make any distinction between legal or illegal Mexican immigrants. Instead, we see the crush of Mexicans entering the United States as a threat to American workers, while also placing an overwhelming burden on this country’s schools and medical facilities.There’s no doubt this is true in states like California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey, where large populations of illegal immigrants often contribute little to support state governments.Yet, who among us would not flee a country where there is little economic opportunity? Certainly, our ancestors had the moxie to venture into an unknown world in search of a better life, so that’s a trait we should all admire.But the Bush administration’s policy towards stemming the tide of illegal immigration is both stupid and embarrassing. The estimated cost to construct the wall between our two countries is $6 billion.Perhaps a three-pronged approach to the problem would work much better. First, that $6 billion would be better spent on programs to improve educational and economic opportunities in Mexico, so residents wouldn’t need to flee their homeland. Second, employers who knowingly hire illegal workers should be fined. Third, deportation laws already exist, but our government’s lack of resolve to prosecute illegal immigrants has helped create the financial crisis many states face today.However, U.S. citizens should realize the last two approaches are only stop-gap measures. Until economic conditions improve in Mexico, we will never stem the tide of people fleeing to this country.Reagan described this country as a “shining city on a hill.” Now, that image is tarnished with an ugly wall, a testament to our government’s failure to understand that freedom and economic opportunity should never be shackled. Instead, we should work diligently to spread both worldwide.A wall wouldn’t have stopped our ancestors and it won’t stop our neighbors to the south. So, I feel compelled to paraphrase another Reagan statement, “President Bush: Tear down that wall!”

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