Editor’s Note: I’m sort of proud of myself for this one. Not a single mention of our president. I know that I have to wean myself off my dependence on him for subject matter, but he just keeps saying stupid stuff. Okay, so this is one article in a row ... maybe next time, I’ll shoot for two in a row.

Immigrants at the ATM


Because I believe in the rule of law, I don’t defend sanctuary cities. One key attribute of a nation’s sovereignty is the ability to control its borders, so I have no problem with strict enforcement of immigration regulations. And my only objection to building “the Wall” is deficit-related, because it’s always been obvious Mexico will never pay for it.

However, these are legal and political issues, which our GOP-controlled government will be handling. I’m more interested in what the immigration debate says about us as Americans: We ask too much of immigrants and too little of ourselves.

We Americans are lazy. We need immigrants to do unpleasant manual labor we won’t do, as well as jobs that require math and science, which too few of us can do. We don’t want to work hard in school learning calculus, chemistry and quantum physics, when we can make more money, more easily, studying finance, marketing or law. As a result, we’re forced to import Chinese and Indian professionals to fill many of the scientific, engineering and medical jobs that demand intelligence and technical know-how.

We Americans are lazy, and we have it soft. I’ve tried to explain to incredulous millennials that, before the advent of the TV remote, you actually had to get up off the couch, walk across a room and turn a plastic knob to change channels. We have photo gray lenses in our glasses to relieve our eyeballs of the effort of dilating and constricting our pupils as it gets darker and lighter, and many of us wouldn’t even attempt the onerous task of dialing a rotary phone, especially if the number had more than one nine in it.

Where we once had to write a check, then stand in line in a bank to cash it, we can now stop off at an ATM. Yet, despite this convenience, I’ve heard one of my friends whine about how obnoxious he finds the need to press a button at his ATM to conduct his business in English. We like having non-English-speakers cut our grass and harvest our food, but, evidently, some of us feel they’re slowing down our banking experiences.

Of course, this two-second inconvenience is minor, weighed against how much Spanish speakers are helped by being able to transact business in their native language. But we now seem to expect them to already speak English when they arrive, or to learn it immediately. Many of those who hate immigrants claim today’s newcomers simply don’t want to learn English, unlike the earlier groups of émigrés, who were eager to assimilate.

But how true is this? How many of us had grandparents who never spoke English? I had a Greek great aunt, who lived in this country for more than 75 years, and never learned more than a few words. And, as a child, how many homes did you visit where elderly relatives lived for decades without ever forming a complete sentence in English?

Teaching writing at a local university, I found the Hispanic students eager to improve their English, and many older Latinos complained that their children had no interest in Spanish. In one generation, they’ll be just like the rest of us. How many Americans do you know who can speak two languages? Lots of us “ugly Americans” even expect “foreigners” to speak English in their own countries when we travel overseas.

Contrary to our nostalgic view of America as a melting pot, we’ve never been welcoming toward immigrants. What bigots say about Hispanics today probably echoes what was said about the successive waves of German, Irish, Chinese and Italian newcomers. We’ve all seen old photos of signs that read, “No Irish need apply,” and we’ve all heard someone say, “I don’t mind immigrants, but …” before filling in the blank with his or her own personal prejudice.




Too often, that blank is filled in with “Middle Easterners.” September 11 aside, the U.S. has suffered relatively few casualties from Islamic terrorism — we’re more likely to be killed by white supremacists or a bathtub accident. Nevertheless, we expect Arab immigrants to spy on each other in their mosques, report the suspicious behaviors of their co-religionists and lecture each other against radicalism. Although these may sometimes be appropriate behaviors, they’re not things we demand of non-Arabs.

In the West (especially the U.K.), the Irish “troubles” have produced far more deaths than jihad. Yet no one expected Irish-Americans — Catholic or Protestant — to name names regarding potential IRA terrorists as the price for their inclusion in American society.

It’s never been Italian-Americans’ job to show their patriotism by informing on suspected Mafia members. Nor do we expect pro-life Catholics to keep their eyes open after mass for potential abortion clinic bombers, and we don’t ask right-wing fundamentalist churches (e.g., Southern Baptists) to monitor their congregations for latent Klansmen.

My barber is Middle Eastern. I don’t know if he’s Muslim, because I’ve never asked. It’s no more my business than whether my dentist, doctor or accountant are Jewish. He’s just trying to do his job and make a decent life for his family here in America. No immigrants owe me or my country any extra obligations specific to their nationality, and it’s no more their job to pass an English test than it is my right to administer it.

And BTW, if we’re going to have a travel ban, then maybe it should include keeping the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis from gathering in large numbers to show their support for white supremacist governance.

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