March 1, 2017
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They are dangerous to our way of life. They have a different religion. They don’t speak English. They dress weirdly. They have strange foods. They’re going to take our jobs. They’ll never be “real Americans.”
These are common sentiments applied to newcomers who have immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, driven by crushing poverty and political disenfranchisement. These sentiments about immigrants sound uncannily similar to those currently being said about refugees and Muslims coming into the U.S. today.
Immigrants from Poland, Italy, Greece, Hungary and Jews came from all over Eastern Europe to emigrate to the U.S. My own grandparents, on both sides, came from Italy. My paternal grandparents were Antonio D’Angelo and Lucia Rizzante, and my maternal grandparents were Michele Spinelli and Agostina Belli. I’m only three generations from some dilapidated village east of Naples, stinking with hunger and manure. I admire their courage for taking their chance on America. They weren’t much different from people looking to gain acceptance into America now. I see my grandparents in their faces.
Last Tuesday on February 21st there was a discussion titled, “Are Immigrants Scary?” Members of the Le Moyne faculty delivered presentations to a packed room. They then asked a number of frivolous questions to the students, such as, “Can you tell me what a Muslim looks like or what a terrorist looks like? If I were to see a woman dressed in a black burqa, I would be fairly confident that she is Muslim. If I am walking down the street and see a man in a ski mask with an AK-47 on his shoulder and a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) in his hand I could also reasonably presume that he is a terrorist (or a radical member of the NRA)
One professor mentioned that there have been no terrorist killings by Muslim immigrants in the U.S. Yet, after reading an article from The Atlantic (2015) that discusses a U.S. Department of Justice report, I found that there was a count of 23 to 27 “honor killings” of Muslim women and girls by their husbands, fathers, and brothers. It’s not hard to imagine the terror of the victims. It seems as though feminism has not taken a strong hold in the Middle East as of yet.
Another partial truth was a mention of a Canadian political movement to ban “Barbaric Cultural Practices.” The implication made by the presenter was that this was an attack on female Muslim apparel. Conveniently forgotten was that another purpose of the law was to add stronger punishments for “honor killings” which are most definitely a Barbaric Cultural Practice.
I believe that these half truths came from a good intention to defuse the demonization of these potential new Americans. This is nothing new or unique to other nationalities or cultures. Irish, Italian, and Jewish gangs, and more recently Russian, Black, and Hispanic gangs have also provided us with “Barbaric Cultural Practices.” I believe that while the professors had good intentions, they needed to have explained the subject matter more clearly.
The latest tide of immigrants have a courage born of desperation. Should we open our doors to them? I say yes. The 800 pound gorilla in the room in this discussion, however, was that immigrants today are predominantly Muslim. These immigrants come from countries which have seemingly hostile religions. Any hostility rises from world political forces. This conception has been held before in order to demonize Jews and Catholics. It made no sense to denigrate others based on their religion in the past, and it makes no sense now.
My greatest concern is simply the difficulty that the new arrivals will potentially face when attempting to adapt to our American customs and cultures. We are a country based on the principles of the 18th century “Enlightenment” and 19th century concepts of liberal democracy. These set of ideas have been slow to take root in their places of origin, thus transition will be more difficult for individuals from non-European countries.
Despite many of our fears of other cultures and change in the U.S., we forget that there is a metamorphosis which occurs from generation to generation. I spent my Junior year in Italy and I learned a lot of things. The most compelling being that in spite of my admiration for my heritage, I am not Italian. I am American through birth, education and culture. So too will be the case for the children and grand children of the current new wave of Americans.
America’s freedom, lifestyle, education system, and culture are alluring to many immigrants. They however, will not change America. America will change their progeny. It is my guess that in three generations or less the children and grandchildren of these immigrants will be as Americanized as…well…me.