Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stereotyping Mexican immigrants--an old game

Not long ago, Everyday Citizen ( posted something I had written about immigrants and the DREAM Act.

A reader responded with a comment that reminded me of the power, poison and persistence of popular stereotypes in promoting hate and inaccurate information. I'll stretch a bit and give the person who posted the comment every benefit of all my doubts and just assume that he/she doesn't know anyone from Mexico.

But, I need to respond to part of the description because of the negative impact of such wrongheaded mythology.

The reader wrote, "The majority of illegal aliens in this country are from Mexico and they know exactly what they are doing. For them, America is the land of the free - health care, welfare, food stamps, no taxes on their income . . . ."

Nothing is free. The immigrants in question have been encouraged to come here by employers who pay them wages below market to benefit company bottom lines and consumers like me. Undocumented immigrants don't qualify for TANF, food stamps or Medicaid. And, they do pay taxes--some even pay taxes on their earned income. The Social Security Administration collects contributions on bogus Social Security numbers annually in an amount equal to about 10% of the entire Social Security reserve fund. These workers pay sales taxes on every purchase they make. As is true for all renters, monthly rent checks allow property owners to pay taxes. True, workers can go to Texas emergency rooms when in a health emergency, but we would be better served if they were free to take advantage of the public health system in terms of cost savings.

The reader wrote, ". . .wouldn't all Americans love to have that kind of world." The most regressive parts of our tax laws affect the poorest among us, including immigrants, many of whom pay a higher percentage of their overall incomes than do many of us who are doing much better financially.

The reader wrote, "And as far as educating them, we have bent over backwards and held our own children back because of their refusal to learn English."

Again, the investment we have made in the education of the children of undocumented immigrants will not be lost, unless we decide to deport them all to a country they've never known. Today in Dallas, bi-lingual employees are needed in every sector of our economy. Why divest our nation of these valuable assets?

As far as "holding our children back," I find that laughable. My daughters are teachers in public schools. One is certified in special education. The other is an elementary teacher with bi-lingual education credentials. She would not agree with your assessment of the impact of immigrant children on "our own children." She is amazed at how fast the children of immigrants learn English.

I am wondering why we don't take advantage of the presence of so many Spanish speaking students to help the English only students master this second language? Could the answer be discovered in the very important, if misguided, distinction the reader makes between "our own children" and theirs? If that is the case, is education really the issue with this reader? I doubt it.

Our fears are foolish, shortsighted and limiting. I pray we wake up to our own folly.



Jon Crosslin said...

There's a joke my roommate always tells me. What do you call someone who can speak three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who can speak two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who can only speak one language? American.

As someone who grew up in the Texas public school system, I can tell you that it's laughable to think that Mexican-American students aren't willing to learn English. They're really eager to become a part of American Society, although not always in the best way.

Their culture, however, can become a burden to those who are trying to get an education, particularly girls.

I was friends with a Mexican-American girl my senior year of high school and she sometimes brought up that she was playing the role of FFA President, a diploma candidate IB student, and as a secondary mother (in the sense that she was expected to clean the house, cook, and take care of her younger brothers).

It wasn't easy for her and now she's attending a University on a full scholarship that most parents would give an arm and a leg to let their students attend. There's no denying that the culture contains some constraints on those trying to get an education. It does not imply laziness in the least.

Lynn said...

Before I comment I want to start by saying I so admire your advocacy for all of those who need a helping hand. I realize that Jesus wants us to be His presence to everyone. That being said the struggle I have is that this is America and the language is English. Why should I have to drive down the street and not know what a storefront says or billboard because I don't speak the language? English can be learned and I think if people want to be here bad enough they should learn the language. I have traveled to other countries and they don't make it easy for me by putting things in English. I have to take a book and look up words to translate. Taking a language in school should be an option for all learners, but you shouldn't have to take another language just to get around in our own country. An Asian mini-mall just went up near my house and I can't read any of the signage. I hope that this doesn't make me intolerant, just sometimes frustrated.

Larry James said...

Lynn, thanks for the post. We've had "language issues" throughout our national history. We are a nation of immigrants, so by definition we have had our language challenges. The signs you see about are not a new phenomenon in this nation. Again, due to the nature of the place, it has always been this way. And, immigrants do learn the language. We tend to ghettoize as cultural groups, especially in centers of immigrantion. Go to Chicago or NYC and you'll still see Yiddish, Polish and Chinese language signs. America is the place that overcomes Babel! But it is about acceptance, loving human beings as we find them and forgetting about self. Here in Texas we've been so isolated by our affluence that we have barriers in our minds and hearts at times against those we don't understand. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and we just need to become servants of the newcomers. Forget all the conditions--just embrace the people. The more of that we do the faster everyone will learn English. And, hey, I maight be moved to learn Spanish!

I know this is not your attitude, but frankly, I've about had it with folks who bash immigrants from Mexico in the name of law and order, as badly as we take advantage of their cheap labor.

Karen Shafer said...

I just don't get it with this whole "Speak-English-Only" thing. Much of our packaging, for example, Kleenex, is in French and English. Is anyone complaining?

Interestingly, in Europe, Americans are known as the travelers who generally refuse to speak the native tongue wherever we are. How arrogant are we?

I'm sorry, but I think "Speak-English-It's-America" is a fake issue that thinly disguises racism, if it disguises it at all.

Larry James said...

Gotta agree with you, Karen.

chris said...

Rep. Heath Schuler (D-N.C.) has proposed, what sounds to me, a sensible piece of legislation. It's called the SAVE Act, Secure America with Verification and Enforcement. It seems to have support of both sides of the aisle. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Larry James said...

Chris, haven't seen the bill--I'll try to find time to look at it. Key: it must find an equitable way to deal with the milliions of our neighbors who have been here making a contribution, and often being taken advantage of, for years. No way a plan that includes wholesale deportation will work or fall into the category of just or moral. It seems to me that many Americans are engaged in wishful thinking, for whatever reason, that is neither fair/just nor practical.

SeriousSummer said...

I find comments like this almost impossible to understand:

"Why should I have to drive down the street and not know what a storefront says or billboard because I don't speak the language?"

When I see something in a foreign language here, I find it exciting, exotic, and interesting. Life is pretty humdrum a lot of the time. Anything new, that lets you experience something different and broaden you horizons is good.

What's the worst that could happen if you can't read a storefront or billboard? You just miss the advertisement. Not much loss there. As far as I'm concerned they could run all the television ads in Mongolian or Polish and I'd be just as happy--maybe happier.

I haven't had the opportunity to travel overseas, but I (and many millions of other people in the United States) love to visit Chinatown in New York or San Francisco, the Indian culture of New Mexico, the German settlements of the Hill Country and the Hispanic culture of Florida, San Antonio or the Texas border.

How much better is it if some of those new things are brought to me here, where I don't have to travel and get to experience them for free?