Ungar on immigration: Strangers in our midst

October 15, 1995|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

"Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants," by Sanford J. Ungar. New York: Simon & Schuster. 399 pages. $25

It began with the notion that the United States had lost control of its borders to illegal immigrants. It grew into the idea that even legal immigrants were an unassimilable mass that the nation couldn't digest.

It is the anti-immigrant backlash, a movement that helped re-elect Pete Wilson as governor of California and now has reached Capitol Hill. A Republican Congress stands ready to build more fences on the Mexican border, double the size of the Border Patrol and shut the "golden door" to thousands of legal immigrants and refugees.

Into this fray comes Sanford J. Ungar, an American University dean and former host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," with a pro-immigration book that seeks to acquaint us with the "new American immigrants."

The familiar, European face of immigration - familiar because many of those immigrants are our grandparents - has changed. Immigrants are now mainly Asian and Latin American - newcomers as exotic to today's Americans as Irish and Italians once were to 19th century Anglo-America.

"This is the new Americana - every bit as American as apple pie and bagels and egg rolls and fajitas and gyros and pizza and sushi," Mr. Ungar writes.

As a tour guide to the new immigration, Mr. Ungar succeeds. His book is readable and illuminating. But as a defender of immigration, he is unpersuasive. He falls back on platitudes - "immigrants help renew, enrich and rediscover the values of America" - when readers confused by the emotional immigration debate yearn for facts and argument. His murky prescriptions for immigration policy seem like an afterthought.

The author makes the obligatory trip to the U.S.-Mexican border, a place where the industrialized and developing worlds grind up against each other like tectonic plates, unleashing periodic tremors in the social landscape.

He contrasts the strikingly different attitudes that greet Mexican immigrants - fear and loathing in Southern California, laid-back tolerance in South Texas. Apparently immigration politics, like all politics, is local. That partly explains why Governor Wilson's presidential campaign went bust.

But the heart of "Fresh Blood" - and the best reading - is profiles of half a dozen immigrant communities: the Hmong in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Cubans in Miami, the Ethiopians and Eritreans in Washington, the Koreans in Los Angeles, the Mashadi (Iranian Jews) in New York and a new generation of Poles in Chicago.

Except for the Cubans and, to some extent, the Koreans, these are new Americans we know little about. Mr. Ungar is clearly sympathetic but doesn't sugar-coat their stories.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ungar focuses his energies on first-generation immigrants. But it is their children whose assimilation is in question: Will they buy into - and improve upon - the American Dream?

Some fascinating ideas are left undeveloped: tensions between U.S.-born blacks and immigrants, including Africans; a reverse "brain drain" of Asians returning the tacit alliance of conservatives and blacks to restrict immigration.

But as one illegal Irish immigrant notes: "The average American doesn't understand the immigration system. It's foreigners who are the experts." Mr. Ungar's book is a commendable step toward dispelling our American ignorance.

James Bock, a reporter for The Sun, was the newspaper's Mexico City correspondent from 1983-87. He was honored by the Inter American Press Association for a series of articles about the U.S.-Mexican border.

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