Magazine article USA TODAY

Immigration: The Sleeping Time Bomb. (State of the Nation)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Immigration: The Sleeping Time Bomb. (State of the Nation)

Article excerpt

WHEN JEAN-MARIE LE PEN placed second in the first round of the French presidential election in April, Europe and the world were shocked. Le Pen, a far-right nationalist who favors tight restriction on immigration and the withdrawal of France from the European Union, was considered a fringe figure in French politics. That he may be, but the impulses he articulates are seeping into European politics. Political asylum is now becoming more difficult throughout the EU, as Europeans are growing more resentful of illegal immigrants, blaming them, as do many in France, for rising crime rates and high levels of unemployment. Center-right parties with less enthusiasm for immigration have gained power in Italy, Spain, Austria, and Denmark. Before the year is over, France and Germany may be included.

What of the U.S., the land of immigrants, going back to the ancestors of the American Indians, who migrated from North Asia more than 10,000 years ago? Since the first European settlements in the 17th century, there have been periodic waves of major immigrations--the Northern Europeans in the 1700s and early 1800s, the Southern and Eastern Europeans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and, in the late 20th century, those from Latin America and Asia.

Each wave brought with it social dislocation and even conquest. Indians, the first North Americans, were devastated by war and disease brought by the Northern Europeans and the Spaniards. Northern Europeans, in turn, resented the waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants who started arriving during the 1890s and erected economic and social barriers to their advancement. In both eras, the issues were eventually resolved for better or for worse. The Indians were conquered and resettled, or intermarried with whites and therefore dwindled in number. Within three generations, Southern and Eastern Europeans assimilated into the larger American culture. Today, the rate of intermarriage among Euro-Americans outside their original ethnic group has reached levels approaching 70-90%. The election of John F. Kennedy as president quieted fears of papal conspiracies among many Protestants, and the nomination of Joseph Lieberman as vice-president on the Democratic ticket in 2000 may have even helped running mate Al Gore. In light of the reaction to Israeli policy in the Middle East, from disdain in Christian Europe to deep hostility in the Islamic countries, it is possible that America has become the least anti-Semitic country in the world.

Why such success? Immigrants and their children in the early and mid 20th century blended into Americans with a strong common culture reinforced by the nation's music, films, radio programs, and, later, television. They also participated in the broad tasks of their fellow Americans, serving in the military, fighting hot and cold wars, and contributing to the transformation of the country that was working class and poor to one that is overwhelmingly middle class.

Will the children and grandchildren of the current wave of immigrants have a similar experience of assimilation and acceptance in the next generation? It is hard to be optimistic. American culture does not have the same common threads that bound it together 50 years ago. Multiculturalism is celebrated in the schools and universities; the popular culture is more adversarial and cynical; and the economic gap between most immigrants and native-born Americans is far greater than it was 100 years ago. …

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