History shows effects of U.S. on immigrants

From all the angry rhetoric about illegal immigration, I gather a lot of Americans are afraid of losing our country to the invading hordes. Not me. I have unshakeable confidence in the power of American culture to corrupt almost anyone.

This cycle of assimilation has been going on for decades: A group of immigrants moves here from another country. Italy. Bosnia. The Dominican Republic. Minnesota. At first, they form a fairly closed society, living together, speaking their own language, maintaining their cultural identity, refusing to root for the United States in the World Cup. (OK, not even 10th-generation Americans root for the United States in the World Cup.)

For these newcomers, life in America can be difficult, as they are shunned and discriminated against by people who have been here only two or three generations longer. Unable to communicate well in English, they find only menial, low-paying jobs. But they persist because, in most ways, life is still better here than in the country they left.

And then, within this close-knit, insular community, something starts to happen to the second generation. They begin to learn English, speaking it openly with their friends at school. They become engrossed in American cartoons and sitcoms. As teenagers they discover malls, where they buy T-shirts with cool American sayings printed on them, such as "Vote for Pedro" and "Tell your boyfriend I said hello."

In short, they become Americans, with all the freedoms and frustrations and social pathologies the rest of us enjoy. They get an education, make lives for themselves, raise families, become our neighbors, until the Rodriquezes and Habibs and Tortellinis down the street have no more connection to their Guatemalan or Middle Eastern or Sicilian ancestors than I have to my Welsh ones. Less, perhaps, because I still occasionally eat Welsh rare-bit.

And all that occurs because that first generation, like the Puritans (speaking of first-generation Americans), was willing to undergo severe hardship: the scorn, the deprivation, the unfamiliar customs, the quasi-pornographic ads in the Abercrombie and Fitch store.

I understand that today's immigration issues are different in some respects, as millions enter this country illegally each year. After 9/11, it's not safe to assume that none of them means us harm. Clearly, there's a need for better security at our borders; we can only hope our government takes time out soon from investigating steroid use in major league baseball to address the problem.

But in the meantime, let's also not overreact to the immigrants in our midst. However they got here, they're here now, and - let's face it - they're probably not going away. It's not like they're really going to take over the country or subvert our culture.

If history is any indication, it's much more likely our culture will eventually subvert them.

E-mail Rob Jenkins at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.