I read with interest Dr. Gary Williamson’s May 12 letter “Control immigration” regarding the immigration debate in America.
Dr. Williamson describes today’s immigrants as “mostly the illiterate, unskilled and extraordinarily fertile” who “live in insular communities” where they “continue to speak their native tongue.” In contrast, Dr. Williamson lauds immigrants from an unspecified past who came here and “integrated, mingled and transformed to become Americans.”
My own grandparents came to America at the beginning of the 20th century. I suspect they were representative of the time and type of immigrants Dr. Williamson approves of. Hard-working people, they always appreciated that they lived in America. They paid their taxes, supported America and strove to make a better life for their children. On the other hand, my grandparents’ immigrant experience represented everything that Dr. Williamson claims is wrong with the immigrants of today. My grandparents never learned much English. They lived in New York City in the kind of patchwork insular communities the letter writer decries. The language of the street could have been German, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Polish or Yiddish but never English. Grandpa Max and Grandma Miriam got by with limited English their entire lives.
Just like Dr. Williamson’s “new” immigrants, they were unskilled. My grandfather spent his entire working career at hard labor in a factory. My grandparents were also “extraordinarily fertile,” as they had six children.
With the passage of time my grandparents did fulfill Dr. Williamson’s memories of immigrant experiences. Their six children all grew up to be completely American. They all spoke English without an accent. The boys all served in World War II. Some went to college. All became successful parts of the group we now call the Greatest Generation. My grandparents never really assimilated into the fabric of America, but their children (my parents’ generation) surely did.
I strongly support the letter writer’s call for secure borders and controlled immigration. I also will grant that in our vast and varied country, Dr. Williamson’s personal experiences with immigration may be different from mine. But I think we all need to remember that immigration assimilation is often generational, with sons and daughters completing the journey that their immigrant parents started.
It may be that when we put the difficult politics and policies of immigration aside, the immigrants of today and the immigrants of a century ago may be more alike than we think.