Immigrants Have Children Who Need to Become Americans

March 21, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

WASHINGTON — Washington. Hangover follows celebration, and in Washington today there is evident discomfort produced by reality-confrontation. The war was fine, but now it's back to problems that can't be settled by 100 hours of blitzkrieg.

One such is the politico-cultural implication of new U.S. immigration patterns. The United States now receives chiefly non-European immigrants: Latin American, Caribbean and Asian. While those from Asia frequently have high levels of skill, a considerable part of this new immigration illegal as well as legal is poor and augments existing inner-city problems.

Immigration, of course, is central to the national identity. We are all immigrants. It currently is fashionable to add to that remark, ''except for the Native Americans,'' but the ''native'' Americans themselves arrived from Asia by way of a prehistoric land bridge.

Otherwise, past American immigration has been all but exclusively European in origin. The exceptions were Africans, brought as slaves, and Asians brought to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries as laborers. Neither were expected to influence the dominant European culture nor to be integrated into American society.

The dominant population was mainly north European in the beginning: British (English plus Scots-Irish, which means northern Protestant Irish), Dutch and German. It included southern Irish after 1830. Southern and eastern Europeans arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Each step away from the original north-European Protestant stock provoked trouble. The Catholic Irish were widely thought dangerous and probably unassimilable. Much hostility developed to Italian, Slav and Jewish ''new immigration'' after 1890. Immigration legislation from before World War I to 1952 was highly exclusionary.

The bias toward European immigration changed only in 1965. Some observers, such as William Rogers Brubaker in a recent book issued by the German Marshall Fund, suggest that we may be entering a new phase of reaction against liberal immigration rules and against the ethnic diversity introduced by the Hart-Celler immigration act of 1965 (and produced as well by very high rates of illegal immigration).

The United States has demonstrated a prodigious capacity to integrate immigrants. The tradition, which is Canadian as well, is of inclusive citizenship. Recent Canadian legislation is even more liberal than American. This contrasts markedly with European assumptions of national exclusiveness.

However, something has changed. The machinery of American cultural assimilation no longer is what it was.

The American public school system for generations took in little immigrants, set them to their English lessons, told them of their Pilgrim Fathers and taught them to pledge allegiance to the flag.

Until the school-prayer interdiction of recent years, Protestant invocations of God's help were pronounced at the beginning of the school year, and at the end Protestant expressions of gratitude were offered for divine favor to the United States, God's own country.

Today the public school system experiences grievous difficulties and decline. Assimilation is no longer the fashion.

''Multi-culturalism'' and bilingualism are the mode in educational circles, and those who defend old notions of how to make ''good'' little Americans out of raw immigrants are considered reactionary American chauvinists, or risk the worse accusations

of racism, cultural imperialism or cultural ''genocide.''

The problem was demonstrated at a conference just held in Washington by the French-American Foundation, devoted in part a comparison of the two countries' experience of immigration. Those French present officials, politicians, academics, writers were all but unanimous in describing France's current situation and what to do about it.

Virtually everyone agreed that France now has a level of %J culturally non-European immigration, chiefly Muslim, which threatens social harmony. The influx must be controlled and sharply cut.

The immigrants now in France must be integrated, and that means assimilation to the dominant culture. The instrument exists, the French school system, which like the American has always performed this function.

The school thus must teach the immigrant child about his ancestors, ''les Gallois'' of antiquity, about his history of monarchy, revolution and republicanism. It will instruct him in French language and literature, in Cartesian categories of thought and in the advanced theoretical mathematics that in recent years have provided the principle of selection in French education.

In the end, whatever his religion, color or national origin, the child, like it or not, will have become forever French.

The American participants revealed disarray. The nature of the American problem, or if there is a problem at all, could not be decided.

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