America's Native-Born Problem

July 21, 1994|By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

ELLIS ISLAND, NEW YORK — "Come to Ellis Island,'' a friend of mine said.'' I will show you my Russian grandfather's name on the wall.''

On a gray weekday morning, I went to Ellis Island with little armies of school children, in search of the past. But I was left thinking about the descendants of immigrants who came through this place.

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans favor a moratorium on immigration. Some even say that we should stop immigration altogether. Americans conclude that we have an immigrant problem. No one wonders if perhaps America has a native-born problem. Does America need the native-born?

''We are a nation of immigrants,'' Americans like to say. We tend, however, to celebrate immigration after the fact. When the pavilions of Ellis Island were crowded at the turn of the century, most Americans probably didn't want foreigners, didn't like them -- the way they looked, the way they spoke, their garlic and their crucifixes, their funny clothes.

Idealism prevailed. Pragmatism prevailed. America needed the cheap labor of Yiddish-speaking grandmothers in the sweatshops. We needed immigrants to build our bridges and carve the Great Plains. Out West, the Chinese were imported to build the railroads. Once the Chinese had finished, Americans wished they would go back to China.

But idealism also created Ellis Island. Americans in the 19th century understood the individual's right to flee the past. How could America resist these newcomers?

Just like immigrants, native-born Americans habitually are on the move -- from Ohio to Kansas, from Dallas to Orlando, Portland to Boise. Our highways are crowded with the restlessness we gleaned from our immigrant ancestors.

The trouble is, we never measure up. We, the children of immigrants, are never as bold, never as driven, as our grandparents. That is why we become annoyed sometimes by immigrant ambition.

Some complain that the immigrants are coming for welfare dollars. The more interesting complaint one hears these days is that the immigrants work too hard. One hears it particularly about illegal immigrants; they are taking our jobs. One parent told me after his children failed to gain entrance into the University of California that Asians were unfair because they worked so hard.

Because of immigrants, Los Angeles has become a working town, no longer the golden, blond city of leisure. Immigrants are blamed for the change -- the traffic, the bad air. Immigrants have turned L.A. into Cleveland.

The Puritans were America's first immigrants. They came, fleeing intolerance. Puritans ended up intolerant of other immigrants who came after. What the Puritans nonetheless planted on American soil was a Protestant faith: You can be born again.

In the 1840s, the Irish were America's major immigrant group. The nativist complaint against the Irish was theological. Today, we talk ethnicity and race. In the 19th century, it was a question of whether a Roman Catholic could become a good American. Could a Jew?

The irony is that the Jews, the Orthodox Greeks, the Mennonites, the Irish Catholics who came through Ellis Island became the new Puritans, restoring the early Protestant determination, the founders' optimistic individualism.

Who doubts it now? The immigrants of Ellis Island created America. We, their children and grandchildren, inherited America. And this is the problem. For the native-born, America is not a destination, it is our address. We lack the immigrants' thrilling sense of discontinuity. Rather, we are carriers of memory. They tore down the forests, we become environmentalists. They were fiercely set on the new, we remember when it was possible to find a parking space in downtown L.A.

Who will say it?: Native-born blacks are being outpaced by immigrant blacks from the Caribbean. I worry less about the newly arrived Mexican kid who is job hunting today in Phoenix than I worry about the third-generation ''Chicano'' undergraduate at UCLA who is mired in the despair of American pop culture.

Coming to Ellis Island, I expected the place to be haunted. Instead, I found a freshly painted irony. A few years ago, Ellis Island was restored by native-born Americans as a monument to the past. For those of us who are native-born Americans, Ellis Island is a historical landmark. But for the immigrants who came through this place, Ellis Island was only a stop on their way to the future. They rushed away. That is why Ellis Island is not haunted.

Richard Rodriguez wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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