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Xenophobia: Fear of 'the others'

POSTED: July 26, 2007 5:02 a.m.
A supposed letter to the editor making the rounds of the Internet compares today’s immigrants (bad) with the immigrants of yesteryear (good). A good response to that fantasy is a Teddy Roosevelt quote that several readers have sent me:
“Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag. ... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.”
What Teddy wrote back in 1919 is supposed to shut me up. It’s meant to say that hyphenated Americans — like me, I guess — are the ruin of this once great nation.
I look at it in a different way, though. The Roosevelt quote proves the “good” immigrant of a century ago is a myth. What Roosevelt said then was intended as a warning. He was tapping into xenophobic anxieties that saw the immigrants of yesteryear as a malignant force that rejected assimilation and spoke a language that was not English.
Nothing of the sort happened. The children of those immigrants became Americans. And so are the children of immigrants today. Studies by the Pew Hispanic Center show English is the primary language of most adult Hispanic immigrants who came as children, and of just about all U.S.-born Hispanics.
But ideologues don’t let facts get in the way of an argument. Which is why the Republican Party is tearing itself apart over the issue of immigration.
We are supposed to believe the fight in Washington is about illegal immigration only. We are told it is not about Hispanics in general.
But even conservative activist Linda Chavez doesn’t buy that. Chavez, who for two decades has been vilified by liberal Hispanics, wrote no less than three articles for National Review accusing some of her colleagues on the right of xenophobia.
“Stripped bare, this is what the current debate on immigration reform is all about,” she wrote. “Fear of ‘the other’ — of those who look or sound different, who come from poor countries with unfamiliar customs — has been at the heart of every immigration debate this country has ever had.”
And so it goes today. That fear of the other is why Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have used the supposed amnesty as a cover to express anxieties about immigration, culture and language. It explains why CNN’s Lou Dobbs, mild-mannered business reporter turned anti-immigration zealot, posted the Roosevelt quote on his site, calling it “one of my favorite thoughts on the issue of immigration.”
It explains why a poster at FreeRepublic.com inserted the face of Rudy Giuliani in what looks to be an old movie still of a sombrero-wearing bandito and added the caption “Borders? We don’t need no steenking borders.” It explains why Giuliani has backed off the pro-immigrant stance he had when mayor of New York City.
And it explains why even some of the most conservative Hispanics realize that all the posturing about illegal immigrants is really an attack aimed at everybody whose name ends in “ez.”

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
 

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