Monday, September 20, 2010
The difference between anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and Europe
What is going on here? Is the world in a nativist explosion?
I think there are two separate waves of feeling sweeping the world, one in Europe and another in America, though they share an important commonality.
Americans emotional about "sealing our borders" are at root anxious about Mexican and Central American immigrants' steep increase in cultural visibility. And in truth, those who note a growing Hispanic influence are reacting to fact. At 48.4 million population in 2009, Hispanics are the largest ethnic or race minority, according to census figures, double the 22 million of just nine years earlier. Twenty six percent of all children under age 5--and 22% of all those under 18 in our country are Hispanic. Hispanic people comprise 47% of the population of New Mexico and 37% of the populations of California and Texas--and 16 percent of the United States population generally (far more than the 12% of our nation who are African-American). Twelve percent of all US residents speak Spanish in the home (half of those also speak English "very well.")
Whether Hispanics are citizens, legal or illegal immigrants is irrelevant to my point--which is that the daily American context increasingly includes Spanish, and ever-greater media attention goes to this significant segment of the population. This, for many people, is an uncomfortable and undesirable change in their personal world.
I do not believe the discomfort comes from bigotry or prejudice against Spanish, Mexicans or Hispanic culture (though I'm sure there is some). My observation is that it's a result of what seems a failure to fulfill the American bargain.
The bargain is: Immigrants are welcome; we are a land of many peoples, combined to form our special "melting pot" in which hopeful volunteers invest their energies and sensitivities in a uniquely American milieu. But the bargain holds that the national culture uses the language of English. Immigrants are expected to learn it as well as adapt to this amalgamated culture--rather than have the establishment and surrounding culture cater to newcomers through a public face speaking other languages.
I hear citizens with an underlying annoyance, often voiced as, "My grandmother came here and had to learn English and how to get by--why don't they?"
It's a visceral reaction to phoning a store or insurance company or doctor's office, getting the already-annoying recorded triage and hearing an extra time-consuming command, "Para espanol, oprima dos." It's not the specific language or culture or people that causes a reaction--the same would be true if the "language invading" were by another group. It's that the basic American cultural experience, based in English, is gradually encroached upon and ceded to something different--and yes, foreign.
But Americans don't fear that Hispanics seek to replace their government with another, as a tenet of being Hispanic. Muslim immigrants, however, bring with them a set of religiously-based values--including goals they hold immutable because they are commanded by God--to ultimately unseat existing governments and replace them with sharia law. While Europeans need the labor Muslims provide, they worry that an acceptance of growing Muslim populations actually endangers not only their cultures, but their very existence.
Bottom line--big influxes of immigrants shifting language and media cause entrenched citizens to want to shut the gates and strengthen the original culture internally--here and in Europe. But the kind of threat posed by unassimilated Hispanic immigrants to America and Muslim immigrants to Europe are wildly divergent in that the religious thrust of Islam is not only permeating but dangerous.