Eating American on the Fourth of July

On this Fourth of July, I will be eating hot dogs. While I was trying to fit in as an Indian immigrant child throughout the 1970's, they represented the quintessential American food. I begged my mother to let me have them for dinner every night instead of chicken curry and rice. She nixed the hotdogs but sometimes allowed spaghetti and meatballs -- straight from a can. Hotdogs were "invented" by German immigrants serving their traditional sausages in the hustling streets of the new world, and spaghetti, everyone knows, came from Italy. If I had been celebrating Independence Day 150 years ago, however, neither would have been on the menu. In those days, Germans and Italians weren't considered Americans, or even white. When they fought over the most lucrative street corner for food vendors in the 1880's, the press reported these incidents as "race riots."

I'll be sharing this holiday with a group of restaurant workers, largely immigrants. Along with the hotdogs, we'll have tacos, samosas, falafel. According to one side of the immigration debate, we can keep our goodies to ourselves. America doesn't want them, or us.

Immigration restrictionists argue not only that we need to stop undocumented immigration, but cut back drastically on legal immigration as well. They argue that this economy -- no longer industrial but focused on information and service -- has no room for masses of poor immigrants. There's a fear that technology makes travel and communication so easy that new immigrants won't break ties with the old country and reassign their loyalty. To them, the telephone is a dangerous device and communication with relatives a terribly un-American act.

Restrictionists have tried to modernize their argument, but it hasn't changed much through the years. Immigration of the late 19th century was dominated by Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews, and other groups from southern and eastern Europe. At that time, these new residents were widely seen as inferior to native-born whites. They were reviled for their refusal to speak English, for their political and economic demands on American corporations, for being so poor that they became "public charges" or undercut the wages of the native-born workers, and for their unacceptable sexual behavior.

The Immigration Acts of 1920 and 1924, the most restrictive immigration policies we've ever had, limited new entrants to 150,000 per year, which was less than a quarter of the total immigration rate at that time. These laws crafted large quotas for northern Europeans while setting limits for countries like Russia and Italy. Thousands of southern and eastern Europeans, however, continued to come.

As immigrants were deported for violating the quota policies, social reformers began to fight for long-time residents who had built families and communities in the U.S. These reformers won a series of changes that gave immigration officials the ability to change someone's status.

The liberalization remade the American identity, but kept it white. Mexicans, for example, were left behind by the process. According to historian Mae M. Ngai, They weren't explicitly excluded, but they had little access to the mechanisms through which to change their status, and no one cared to correct that oversight. In 1929, Congress also passed the Registry Act, allowing people to change their status if they paid $20, hadn't left the U.S. since 1921, and were of good moral character. Of the 115,000 people who were forgiven between 1930 and 1940, 80 percent were European or Canadian. The attorney general began to suspend deportation orders after 1940, and an internal Justice department study in 1943 revealed that the overwhelming majority of suspensions went, ironically, to Germans and Italians; only 8 percent involved Mexicans. Instead of liberalization, Mexicans got a guest worker program, and in 1954, Operation Wetback, the country's first mass deportation program.

Restrictionists have frozen images of a "true" America, as though our identity hasn't changed since 1776. Stasis, however, is a fiction. Cultures do not stand still, nor should we want them to. We have the chance now to remake our immigration policy in the modern era, not by taking it back to the 1920's, but by grappling honestly with the fact that the American identity is always undergoing cultural change. Modernity challenges us to create a policy that finally recognizes the full humanity of all immigrants without regard to their racial identity.

If we are indeed what we eat, Americans are already eating like the world. It's time for our policy to catch up to our palates.

Sen is the president of the Applied Research Center and the publisher of ColorLines magazine. Her book, The Accidental American, will be released in September.

Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 6/08

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