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The Tentacle


May 24, 2004

Immigrants Will Assimilate, Just Give Them Time

Tony Soltero

Not long ago I had some furniture delivered to my home. I dutifully camped out at my house during the proper time-slot designated by the store, and waited for the truck to arrive with my spanking new recliners.

Sure enough, the delivery truck pulled up in front of my driveway, and two young Central American men got out and carried the La-Z-Boys into my living room. I signed the paperwork, watched my dollar bills sprout wings and fly away into the mist, and the deliverymen went off to their next house.

The two young men were obviously not natives of this country, but their English, while not perfect, was more than functional. For this reason, the transaction was as smooth as the armrest covers that came with the chairs.

I guess I was lucky. I could have been William Donald Schaefer ordering a McMuffin, and getting nothing but a blank look in return.

I must say that I empathize with former Governor Schaefer's frustrations on this particular matter. When you can't communicate with the person supposedly there to perform a service for you, the situation can get awkward and uncomfortable pretty quickly. I can't blame Willie Don for throwing a little fit. And I do wonder what the McDonald's management was thinking, placing a non-English speaker in a position where at least basic English skills were required to properly perform the job.

For our nation to run smoothly, we need to be able to communicate with one another. At that level, I strongly believe that immigrants to America should learn English, as Maryland Comptroller Schaefer not-so-subtly suggested after his unpleasant encounter with the fast-food cashier. That's the single best way to make oneself competitive in our economy and job market. And it makes all our lives that much less complicated.

It was a minor little incident that could have served as an important little reminder to the immigrant community. Or at least that's all it should have been.

But unfortunately, Gov. Robert Ehrlich couldn't just leave it at that. Oh, no. It was a golden opportunity to demagogue and grandstand, and Governor Ehrlich doesn't usually let those pass him by. So he let loose a diatribe on the supposed evils of "multiculturalism," calling it "bunk" and "crap," and suggesting that immigrants don't buy into American values.

It was a tirade eerily reminiscent of his long-ago appearance at Essex, when, as a congressman, he "reassured" the locals that those icky Section 8 people wouldn't be relocated into their neighborhoods.

There was bunk involved, certainly. But most of it came out of Bob Ehrlich's mouth.

America has always been a multicultural society. Little Italy didn't spring up yesterday. We've had Chinatowns in American cities for decades, if not centuries.

Is Texas culturally just like Massachusetts?

Every immigrant group that has come to our shores, whatever its origin, has held on to some aspects of its culture and traditions. And more importantly, it has contributed to the ever-evolving and expanding kaleidoscope that is American culture. What would we be without Mardi Gras, without sushi, without baseball, without bagel shops, or without rhythm and blues music? Did all of those come from England?

Multiculturalism is an asset to America, not a liability. It's an enormous component of the strength and resilience of our nation.

Some might argue that we're at risk of "Balkanizing" ourselves if we don't discourage immigrants from retaining their traditions. But that's only an issue if immigrants refuse to learn English -- and historically that's never been the case in the United States. The pattern is quite consistent over the years -- while the original generation of immigrants might only master a minimal knowledge of English, their children usually pick it up easily. And their grandchildren wind up speaking English as their first language, with the old tongue increasingly becomes a family curio.

In the case of the more recent waves of immigrants, mainly from third-world countries, it's easy to forget that they're simply going through their own first-generation assimilation pains. Their children will fit in a lot better, unless they break with the patterns of every other immigrant wave in our history. A century ago, Italians and Germans were much like that hapless Hispanic worker at McDonald's -- thrust into low-paying service jobs without knowing the language of their new country, at the mercy of their surroundings. Even English-speaking newcomers, like the Irish, were marginalized in many ways. But they all eventually assimilated just fine. So will this group.

Now, there are many things we entrenched Americans can do to make the process smoother. We can support more funding for ESL (English as a second language) programs. As a former volunteer in English tutoring with the Hispanic Apostolate in Baltimore, I can attest to the fact that newcomers uniformly desire to learn English, and will work extremely hard at picking up whatever language skills they can. But they need to have the resources. Unfortunately, federal funding for ESL has dried up over the last few years. It's time to turn that around -- if we are indeed serious about helping immigrants with English.

Those who hire non-English speakers to jobs might want to ensure that public interaction is minimized until the employee can develop a working knowledge of the language, simply to avoid backlash-producing scenes like Comptroller Schaefer's encounter.

But we don't help matters by railing against straw men and declaring "multiculturalism" an evil dragon that must be slayed.

Properly supported, immigrants will settle in just fine. Just like those two delivery boys.



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