Technology vs. Assimilation

I was recently invited by longtime immigration reform advocate Peter Brimelow, who is also a highly accomplished journalist, editor, and publisher, to write a piece for the immigration watchdog site VDare about the experiences of Arab-American immigrants through the story of my own family, and what that might teach us about immigration today. This might seem ironic, considering that VDare is named for Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas, unless of course you have engaged in enough dialogue with Brimelow and his colleagues to know that despite their hawkish views on immigration, they are not the wretched xenophobes their detractors make them out to be.
Modern Technology vs. Old Fashioned Assimilation - Is A Melting Pot Even Possible Any More?
by George Ajjan

In the early part of the last century, almost 20 million people immigrated to the United States. Less than 1% of them came from the geographic region of Syria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. (Now it's divided into the modern political entities of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Lebanon, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel, and the Palestinian Authority).

Like their counterparts from Eastern and Southern Europe, Arab immigrants sought economic opportunities in the U.S. Many probably intended to return to their homelands with better economic status as much as they wanted to settle into a new life overseas.

Interestingly, many would-be Americans from the Middle East arrived to Ellis Island and other ports of entry only to be rebuffed due to the prevalence of maladies like trachoma, common amongst Mediterranean people. This left them two options: undergo quarantine for treatment, which was generally unaffordable, or get on another boat. So many Arabs continued their journey southward, settling throughout Latin America. Their descendents achieved enviable economic and political success. For example, recent Presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, and El Salvador have been of Arab extraction.

The approximately 150,000 Arabs who did succeed in immigrating to the United States in the early 20th century included my own ancestors. The last of them arrived in 1921, when new immigration quotas drastically reduced inflows from the Mediterranean. After the quotas were further revised in 1924, only a few hundred Arabs entered the United States annually. (continued...)

My forebears, and the vast majority of Arab immigrants in that era, were Christians. For them, emigration seemed more attractive than compliance with Ottoman tax policy, which required religious minorities to pay a tribute called jizya or otherwise face military conscription. Some Catholic, others Orthodox, these immigrants followed Eastern rites—Melkite, Maronite, Syriac, Armenian—which in some cases still presented a religious barrier to cross in America. (And that barrier was even higher for the few Muslims and Jews. Brooklyn, New York and Deal, New Jersey still retain thriving Syrian Jewish communities).

Camaraderie ran high within the Arab community despite the religious differences. But there was cultural friction with American society at large. Stories passed down from Paterson, New Jersey in the 1920s recount street brawls between Irish and Syrians, whom the Irish mistakenly called Turks, which the police had to break up with fire hoses. Finally, the Syrian version of the legend goes, Dean William McNulty marched into an Irish pub one night and lectured his people:

"This fighting with the Syrians has got to stop. These people come from the land where Christ himself walked—so show them some respect."

McNulty's sentiment was echoed in a poem by the celebrated Arab-American author Khalil Gibran, born in what is now Lebanon and raised a Maronite, he wrote "To Young Americans of Syrian Origin" in 1926:

"I believe that it is in you to be good citizens. And what is it to be a good citizen?

…It is to produce wealth by labor and only by labor, and to spend less than you have produced that your children may not be dependent on the state for support when you are no more.

It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, 'I am the descendant of a people that built Damascus, and Byblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.'

It is to be proud of being an American, but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised His messengers.

Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you."

In my case, it was my great-great-grandfather who sought a visa from the American consulate in Aleppo, now in northern Syria. He arrived in the United States with his family in 1921, speaking no English. As with many immigrant households in America, he and his family communicated in their native language at home and in their ethnic enclave of Central Falls, Rhode Island and later Paterson. (To this day, Paterson is a prominent center of Arab-American social and cultural activity, shared by both Christians and Muslims, who nowadays comprise roughly equal numbers within the Arab-American community nationwide).

The youngsters learned English at school. These bilingual children of Arab immigrants assimilated nationwide in a manner typical of that era, best exemplified by their service to the Armed Forces. For example, in the 1940s both of my grandfathers joined the US Army and were sent to Europe during the Second World War. This naturally had a profound effect on their immediate families. The impact of that experience on immigrants of that era, like my great-grandparents, illustrates an important difference with their counterparts of today.

With their son fighting thousands of miles away, my paternal grandfather's parents craved news about his whereabouts and the overall progress of the war. It so happened that a gentleman in Paterson published a newspaper to serve the Arab-American community and provide them updates. He took Monday's paper in English, translated it, and published Monday's news in Arabic on Tuesday. For a while, this suited my great-grandfather, anxiously awaiting knowledge of his son's fate. But then he began to realize: this is not good enough. My son could be dead. I can’t wait a day to know what is happening.

So he taught himself to read and write in English. For him, it was a necessity. It was also a major step on the road to assimilation.

But at that time, the process for immigrants was much more clear-cut. In most cases, people had little choice. Immigrants arrived by boat, and certainly not in luxury. The weeks-long journey was difficult and expensive, but most of all time-consuming. Traveling back and forth to one's home country was essentially out of the question. Additionally, telephones and television did not exist (and when they did, they were prohibitively expensive for poor immigrants) Even exchanging letters with overseas kin took weeks if not months. So many people simply lost touch with their relatives and the lives they left behind.

Outside of grocery shopping in the local ethnic enclave, doing anything in America required some degree of familiarity with English. The electric company, the phone company, even voting ballots, didn't offer multi-lingual options. Immigrants thus resigned themselves to assimilation.
But the 21st century tells a different story. Immigrants come to the US and, like previous generations, tend to settle into ethnic enclaves where their native language has primacy. But the similarities often end there.

Immigrants arrive by airplane. Flights leave daily and, if purchased wisely, are affordably priced. The journey back and forth is easy and comfortable. It's all too simple for 21st century immigrants to keep a pied-à-terre in the homeland. Staying in touch with their relatives is simple. Everyone uses email. Phone cards allow people to call overseas for just pennies a minute—not to mention instant messenger, webcams, and Skype. Communication is cheap, if not free.

Among the first things modern-day immigrants tend to do is hook up satellite dishes, also at relatively low cost, so they can follow the news in their countries of origin, in their native language. Who needs to learn English and watch CBS, NBC, or ABC when you've got Telemundo? And even without cable or satellite, the major networks are close-captioned in Spanish.

Rewind to World War II. If al-Jazeera had existed back then, costing just a few dozen dollars per month, my great-grandfather would probably never have learned English. He could have followed the news of his soldier son in his native Arabic.

Thus the media revolution presents us with a paradox. It is actually removing the pressure on immigrants, no matter what their origin, to learn English and to assimilate into American society. For example, simple programming can now automatically translate VDARE.COM into Spanish.

Technology's impact alone is cause for concern. But there is something even more disturbing that must be honestly discussed and debated. No one would expect immigrants who become naturalized US Citizens to expunge an emotional attachment to their countries of origin. But the ability to maintain such integral connection to another country can present a conflict of loyalty that does not befit America. As Congressmen Tom Tancredo stated in the latest Republican primary debate, immigrants should be expected to cut political ties to their homelands. Dual allegiance cannot be accepted.

Of course, the main intent of immigration reform, the primary domestic issue of today, is to enforce our laws and to eliminate illegal immigration to protect the American way of life. But once we have confidence in the robustness and legality of the system, we must then turn our attention to the secondary problem of those who immigrate legally to the United States in an upright manner, but choose not to assimilate.

Even establishment figures propose a return to English-only ballots and government documents, a focus on the teaching of American History, and an Oath of Allegiance. But they show awareness that technological change will continue to make assimilation less likely.

The next great battle, therefore, for immigration reform advocates who wish to protect as well as strengthen America, as I believe immigration has historically done, is a comprehensive effort aimed at encouraging the participation in, involvement with, and especially loyalty to, the culture, society, and civic life of the United States of America.

George Ajjan is a Republican activist and member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy Council. He is also the creator of REDchoice, an issue-based poll for the GOP's 2008 Presidential primary.

O --- This article first appeared in on VDare on August 1, 2007.

A follow-up Letter to the Editor, including my response, was published on VDare on August 11:

A Mexican-Canadian Reader Hopes America's 'Fear' Of Foreigners Does Not Turn Her Into An Authoritarian State

From: Jesús Peña (born in Mexico, and a naturalized Canadian)

I hope with all my mind and heart that America never becomes the authoritarian state George Ajjan is advocating for and that his ancestors fled from. But again, even the best country in the world may devolve by fear of the foreign and lack of acceptance of new people and ideas.

Many facts are hidden or ignored in Ajjan's article. For example, even when Spanish-speakers in the US watch Spanish TV, that does not mean they speak Spanish only. Another one is that "a simple programming" can translate English into Spanish, but the resulting text is unintelligible for any practical purpose.

America is a free country, where its people (and I count legal immigrants and naturalized Americans among them) choose freely to assimilate at their own pace.

Using the government—as I believe Ajjan advocates, although he doesn't say it directly— to restrict TV programming and technology is un-American.

I replied:
Of course Spanish speakers may prefer Spanish-language entertainment despite being totally fluent in English or perhaps even possess superior skills in English.

For example, my Arabic is poor but I occasionally watch al-Jazeera to brush up on my comprehension. I also watch historical dramas, game shows, and music videos on other Arabic satellite channels. As an American citizen, I am free to enjoy whatever entertainment I wish.

But let's not kid ourselves, there are those who immigrate to the US, legally or illegally, and rely exclusively on non-English media sources that inhibit their ability to assimilate.

True, the translation technology is not perfect (believe me, if you think the Spanish auto-translations are bad, try the Arabic ones!) But sooner or later, these tools will be as close to perfect as they need to be to allow people to function in American society without knowing English.

Finally, if the government restricted tv programming on the basis of language, I would be the first to protest alongside you.