Harvard Square Observer: The Immigrant Experience

Ernest Cassara

With so many Xenophobes on the loose, it is important to point out some facts about the way previous immigrants have adapted to American life.  Those who worked outside their own communities of necessity had to learn to speak English.  They did, often imperfectly and with an accent.  Their children, however, thanks to the requirement that children attend school, learned to speak and write English and spoke it with their playmates, even if at home they understood pretty much what their parents said in the native tongue.

As a matter of fact, it was when their children came along that the native language of their grandparents was pretty much lost in the family.  Often, to their regret.

So, all of the debate of late about the necessity to declare in legislation that English is our national language is pretty much wasted energy.  Except, of course, on the part of the Xenophobes mentioned above, who are more concerned with opposing immigration than with protecting the English language.

It is, of course, not necessarily xenophobic to be concerned with the fact that there are so many thousands of undocumented workers in the United States.  The question is how these fellow human beings are to be treated.  Are we to round them up - in the thousands - and deport them, as one gets the impression that Congressman James Sensenbrenner (Republican of Wisconsin) - who always brings Torquemada to mind when I hear him orating - would like to do?

The House, of course, will have nothing to do with the more humane approach of President Bush, who would like to arrange for a guest worker program and would like to find a way to pave the way to citizenship for such people.

That anything will be settled on the question before the November congressional elections is unlikely.  Too risky.  Too many folks on both sides of the question who will be antagonized, something our brave leaders fear.

Personally, I feel great sympathy, not only for the immigrants - documented, or undocumented - and, especially, for their children, who have grown up as Americans, and are going through the process of learning our national language, in the manner I outlined at the beginning of this column.  Kick them out, with their folks?  Consign them to a country, whichever one it may be, that most likely they have never seen?

It is always satisfying to blame someone else for our national problems.  My candidate is President James K. Polk, who, over the opposition of such as Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, et al., insisted on picking a fight with Mexico (1846-48).  Those of you who have not thought about it lately, of course, will recall that so much of the territory that makes up the southwestern United States was seized by Polk from Mexico. Irony, is it not, that so many years later, we can blame him?

I'm reminded of a trip to Austin, Texas, a few years back, accompanying My Better Half to an academic gathering there.  I was struck by the large number of people we met, waiters, bellhops, bar tenders, cab drivers, folks on the street,  who apparently were of Mexican origin. Although we see a few Latinos around Harvard Square, in comparison with Austin, they are relatively few.  Perhaps if Sensenbrenner and his cohorts were from that area, their attitudes would be much more constructive, attempting to find a way to welcome undocumented workers as members of the American family.

I cannot leave this subject without mentioning the New Yorker cartoon by J. B. Handelsman in the 10 April issue that you may have joined me in chuckling over.  It pictured an American Indian family on shore, one little boy standing on Plymouth Rock, as the Mayflower headed into the harbor.  The father of the family said, "Well, they look pretty undocumented to me!"

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