It is Saturday, on a cloudy early afternoon and I am home, in front of my computer, thinking of a term to use for my research paper on a socially charged term. I decide to type in the words "'Immigrant' definition" in the Yahoo search engine; the number one result displays "Illegal Immigrant - Legal Dictionary Definition". Immediately, I say in my head, "That's the word"! This happened a few days before the first draft of my paper was due. Then a few days later, still with my research in mind, I asked someone I know well and who is not particularly racist or prejudiced, "What does the word immigrant mean?" This person hesitated for a moment…then I said, "Just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind." The person immediately responded, "Someone that is not supposed to be here [in the U.S.]". The Web search results and the response I got from this person just reinforced my previous perceptions that the word Immigrant is generally associated with negative and strong connotations in our culture. So, how does this come about? Why, in a "nation of immigrants", is this word often perceived so negatively? I will attempt to show how the term Immigrant is being wrongfully defined, misused, misinterpreted, or misperceived by exploring the word's denotative, connotative, and etymological definitions--focusing mainly on how the word applies in America. Accordingly, I will give some accounts pertaining to U.S. immigration history as well as some global immigration facts to support my thesis.
Let us first define the term Immigrant. There are definitions for the word immigrant which pertain to other animals and to plants; however, I will only discuss the ones that refer directly to people. The American Heritage® Dictionary defines immigrant as a person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another or one who emigrates. In other words, an Immigrant is a person who comes to a country where they were not born with the purpose of settling there ("Immigrant" Answers). The term immigrate originates in 1623 from the classical Latin word immigratum, past participle of imigrare "to remove, go into, move in," from in-"in" + migrare "to move". The term Immigrant, "one who immigrates", is first mentioned in 1792 (Harper). In basic sociology, Immigrant is simply a person who moves into a territory ("Immigrant" Webref). According to our history, everyone in the United States, except Native Americans, is an immigrant or an immigrant descendent, and while whether Native Americans were the "First Americans" is still debatable to some, there is no doubt they were in America way before our nation's founding fathers. Actually, by etymological definitions of native (before Anglo-Americans applied the meaning to accommodate their conquests) Native Americans are the only true natives to America--being there for perhaps thousands of years before the European immigrants arrived. The word native dates back to about 1374, from old French natif (feminine for native) from classical Latin nativus "innate, produced by birth," from natus, past participle of nasci, gnasci "be born," related to gignere "beget," from Proto-Indo-European base *gen-/*gn- "produce". The noun dates back to about 1450, originally meaning "person born in bondage," later (1535) meaning "person who has always lived in a place." The term native also applied from 1652 to original inhabitants of non-European nations where Europeans hold political power; hence, used contemptuously of "the locals" from 1800 (Harper). Ironically, however, inthe mid-19th Century white American settlers used the word Nativism in a U.S. anti-immigrant movement; this is an example of the attempts from white colonists to redefine the word native to fit their prejudices ("Nativism").
According to text definitions of the word immigrant, mentioned above, the English colonists themselves, also referred to as the "Pilgrims", were immigrants as well (they began the first major wave of immigrants to the America).
The Pilgrims came to America for most of the same reasons people still migrate from country to country around the world today: for opportunities to practice their professions, for political freedom, in search of economic opportunities, and to escape persecution ("Immigration"). Choice and pressure are inclusive elements of all migration (Keely 50). The second major wave of immigrants came to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century during the California Gold Rush; more than ten million people, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, migrated to America (about 300,000 were Chinese). In the early twentieth century, during the major Ellis Island influx in the upper New York bay, about twenty million immigrants mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived in the United States. This twenty-year period marked the third and biggest wave of immigration in U.S. history. Since 1980, more than nineteen million immigrants have come to the United States most of which came from Latin America and Asia. This period is the fourth major and latest wave of immigration influx in our country's history (Moore); immigration is an essential part of our history. Since the arrival of the first colonists (immigrants) to the establishment of the U.S. as a nation, our country has implemented many discriminatory laws or acts which selectively either stopped/reduced or stimulated/encouraged immigration of people from certain countries or regions to the U.S. Among these laws and acts are: the capture of thousands of Africans to be brought as slaves against their will in the 1600s, the influx of about 300,000 Chinese to work on the dangerous task of building the intercontinental railroad between 1850-1882; then, the U.S. implemented the Chinese Exclusion Act (which prohibited Chinese people from immigrating to the U.S.) This act stood for 20 years. Furthermore, Chinese already living in the country could not become citizens. First, we bring slaves, then we open our borders to have hungry immigrants perform our labor, yet, we have no decency to treat them with dignity after they help build our nation. Between 1917-1924, a string of laws were passed increasingly limiting the number of immigrants that entered the country, implementing quotas, exclusions, and banning all Asians but Japanese citizens from entering the U.S ("US").
Even today, the word Immigrant is commonly used to ostracize or isolate people that look and act different from white America. Other terms and expressions related to the word Immigrant are used in similarly negative ways. For instance, the term alien is used to define one who is a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country (also defined as a person who has been estranged or excluded ("Alien").) Also, the term Illegal immigrant is used to refer to a foreigner or alien who lives in the United States illegally (undocumented), whether he or she came in illegally or overstayed a visa ("Immigration"). Another related term used is Immigrant class; this is defined as recent immigrants who are lumped together as a class by their low socioeconomic status in spite of different cultural backgrounds (Parker). The context in which we normally see the word Immigrant used is part of the problem. Going back to the term Illegal immigrant, the term was first recorded in 1939 in reference to Jews entering Palestine without authorization during the British mandate (1917-1948 CE) (Harper). Thus, historically, when we think of the word Illegal immigrant we think of conflict. We think of people who are different from us, people who might "disturb" our way of life, who might take our jobs, our land and resources, or possibly even our sons and daughters as it applies today. These connotations should be the complete opposite. In the other hand, from ancient times the words nomads, explorers, discoverers, settlers and colonists have been used to positively describe white Immigrants. These "travelers" migrated from one country to another, bringing slaves to perform their hard labor, violently taking over land from real natives, exploiting resources, and then, calling subsequent arrivers Immigrants to keep them segregated (America). Note how the following terms differ in terminology and connotations from that of the word Immigrant: settler is a person who settles ina new colony or moves into a new country; colonist is a member or inhabitant of a colony. A colony is a body of people who settle far from home but maintain ties with their homeland ("Colony"). Why is the Martinez family not referred to as Newcomers or New settlers instead of "Wet bags", for instance?
Furthermore, immigrants are not "draining" the public assistance services, welfare programs, as many anti-immigrant "gurus" like to say. According to data released in 2002 by the CIS (Center for Immigration Studies), out of 28.8 percent of the immigrant households that were eligible for the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), only 24.5 were receiving any public assistance compared to 16.6 and 16.3 of "native" households, respectively (Camarota 13). This means that in proportion, eligible "native" households used welfare programs 4 percent more than eligible "immigrant" households did. Moreover, 11.5 percent of "natives" live below poverty levels compared to 16.6 percent of the foreign-born population; however, 27.2 percent of the "native" population has a Bachelor's degree or higher compared to 27.3 of the foreign-born population (Larsen 5 and US Census).
But enough about statistics; let's talk about some cultural and personal identity issues related to being an immigrant. From what I have witnessed, most labor migrants live in the U.S. with hopes to someday return to their homeland to stay, but those dreams rarely come true. This is particularly true for those who come to the U.S. as adults; the older they are when they arrive, the harder it is for them to fully integrate into American society (due to cultural, language, identity barriers, etc.); they are marginalized from higher economic main streams, thus getting "stuck" in the Immigrant class. It is up to second and third generation Immigrants to step up the economic latter and peel off the negative stereotypes. The drive of immigrants is unparalleled; nothing is more common than to have poverty-stricken immigrants become prosperous in a new country and make that country more prosperous as well. The Chinese have done this throughout Southeast Asia, the Lebanese in West Africa, and numerous other groups in various other regions of the world (Sowell 3).
On a global scale, immigration have been a major part of humanity as well, dating back centuries: Germans have migrated to Russia, United States, Brazil, Paraguay, and Australia; Japanese have migrated to the United States, Canada, Peru, and Brazil; Italians have migrated to France, Germany, Switzerland, Austro-Hungarian empire, Austria, Belgium, Luxemburg, Greece, Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, United States, and Australia. Chinese have migrated to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines, Indochina, The Caribbean and South America, United States, and Africa; Jews have migrated to Spain, Britain, France, Soviet Union, Argentina, United States, and Australia; Indians have migrated to Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, United States, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka (Sowell 55). It is interesting to point out that Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews, Indians and others, have been around for long before Americans have (some, for thousands of years longer). If in the future the tables were turned, and it was now us, Americans, migrating in masses to other countries due to war, natural disasters, civil disturbances, impoverishment or tyranny, wouldn't we want to be received and treated respectfully? Wouldn't we want to be treated with respect and dignity? Many Americans could not imagine such a thing happening, but if it has happened to others, it can certainly happen to us as well. Land migrations have already been of great significance and proportions within our boarders. The mass migration of Americans from their original settlements on the east to the Pacific coast in the mid 19th century expanded the nation and transformed cultures (Sowell 43), including, of course, those affected negatively as it turned out for Indigenous Americans and the Mexicans. This fact may be linked to the present border-crossing crisis that occurs daily from Mexico to the United States. Additionally, according to information found in the book "Immigrant America: A portrait", there are four basic types of immigrants to America (Portes and Rumbaut 14-24): Labor Migrants, Professional Immigrants, Entrepreneurial Immigrants, and Refugees and Asylees. Out of these immigrant types, labor migrants (which perform menial and generally low paying jobs) correspond most closely to popular stereotypes. This marginality is one of the aspects an immigrant has to overcome. It partly contributes to cause individuals to undergo transformations in not only the social, but the mental, and emotional aspects of personality, each reacting upon the other, according to experts (Portes and Rumbaut 159).
The contributions from immigrants to the development of what is America today are innumerous. This is recognized, at least verbally, by our latest presidents. During the 2001 inaugural address, President George W. Bush said, "America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them; and every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American." And "They [immigrants] bring to America the values of faith in God, love of family, hard work and self reliance -- the values that made us a great nation to begin with." Also, former President Clinton has said that America draws "strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants. In each generation, they [immigrants] have proved to be the most restless, the most adventurous, the most innovative, and the most industrious of people. Bearing different memories, honoring different heritages, they have strengthened our economy, enriched our culture, and renewed our promise of freedom and opportunity for all." All immigrants contribute to the U.S., changing the course of history and shaping the American culture. Some distinguished and/or famous contributors, foreign-born, immigrants, to the U.S. include the following ("Facts"):
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of telephone (Scotland)
Le Ly Hayslip, author (Vietnam)
Albert Einstein, scientist (Germany)
Arthur Rubinstein, pianist of the 20th century (Poland)
Oscar de la Renta, fashion Designer (Dominican Republic)
Andy Garcia, actor (Cuba)
Andre Carnegie, steel entrepreneur of the late 19th/early 20th centuries (Scotland)
Sammy Sosa, baseball player (Dominican Republic)
Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State (Germany)
Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State and US ambassador to the UN
Marcus Garvey, politician (Jamaica)
Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor/California State governor (Austria)
Bob Hope, entertainer (United Kingdom)
Bette Bao Lord, author (China)
Gene Simmons, frontman for the Hard Rock band KISS (Israel)
Gloria Estefan, singer (Cuba)
Carlos Santana, guitarist (Mexico)
Eddie Van Halen, guitarist (The Netherlands)
Mikhail Baryshnikov, ballet dancer (Soviet Union)
Hakeem Olajuwon, basketball player - Univ. of Houston and Houston Rockets (Nigeria)
Zubin Mehta - conductor and musician (India)
Elie Wiesel - Nobel Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor (Romania)
Enrico Fermi - Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1938 (Italy)
Thomas Mann - author; won the Nobel Prize (Germany)
Jaime Escalante, educator (Bolivia)
Bob Marley, singer (Jamaica)
These are all examples of what immigrants really are--they are America. Generally speaking, Americans who complain about immigration often fail to recognize the "Brain Drain" factor. According to the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia, a brain drain is the emigration of trained and talented individuals for other nations, due to conflict or lack of opportunity or health hazards where they are living. It parallels the term "capital flight" which refers to financial capital which is no longer invested in the country where its owner lives and earned it. In the 1980s, about 1.5 million college-educated immigrats came to work in the U.S. as scientists and engineers, helping keep America internationaly competitive in high-technology industries ("Misconseptions"). And finally, I most definitely wish that the term Immigrant did not have so many negative issues and feelings associated with it, that I did not carry labels, juggle identities, and straddle cultures (Narayan 13). An excerpt from a poem called New Arrival by a student called Michelle Ann Flaming says it best:
"I'm here and now I see,
This is America, it can be
I am America, America is me!" (21-23)
1). Nativism: 1. The policy of protecting the interest of native inhabitants against those of immigrants. 2. The policy or practice of preserving or reviving an indigenous culture (Flexner).
2). Indigenous : 1. Originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country; native. 2. Innate; inherent; natural. Indigen: native, original inhabitant (Flexner).
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