Social Education 55(6) pps. 396-397
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

"They Are Not Like Us!": Teaching about Immigrants in Rural Schools

Bob Benoit
The words rang out with conviction: "Their customs are too different and they'll never be able to be like us!" A class of high school seniors had been discussing new immigrants to the United States in the twentieth century. Some advocated strict immigration limits, arguing that the "American way" would be destroyed by these strangers. Students pointed specifically to the Cuban prison riots and attempts to establish bilingual ballots in California as examples of this danger.
Ironically, the study of immigration in United States textbooks receives scant attention. As a nation whose most prominent symbol may be the recently refurbished Statue of Liberty, the United States can easily be studied in light of its immigration patterns and the effects thereof. Teachers may examine the topic thematically, looking to the migration of Native Americans over the Bering Strait, the early colonists on both coasts, the forced immigration of Africans, the great flock of immigrants in the late 1800s, or the most recent waves of newcomers.

The following statement, which expresses concern about immigration, can be used in the classroom as a critical-thinking exercise. Students should be asked to determine who is speaking, when the speech was made, and what group of people is being described.

The original version of the preceding statement 1-which, for this exercise, has been updated and generalized-does not refer to Cubans, Asians, Irish, Italians, or other recent arrivals. The statement was written by Benjamin Franklin, and he was referring to the early German immigrants. If we insert German for each they in the above passage, and use Franklin's original style, the first paragraph reads as follows:

I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great temper are necessary with the Germans; and I am not without apprehension that, through their indiscretion, or ours, or both, great disorders may one day rise among us. Those who come are generally the most stupid of their nation. And as Hollen says of the young Hottentots, that they are not esteemed men until they have shown their manhood by beating their mothers, so they seem not to think themselves free, till they can feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their teachers. A discussion based on this statement will likely evoke strong emotions from students, especially in rural areas where few recent immigrants attend the school. In the process of determining who "they" are, classroom discussion will probably turn to the sentiments described by the speaker and will likely reveal stereotypes students have of modern immigrants, including a general feeling that "they" are simply not like us. Through questioning, the instructor can usually elicit from "American" students the following types of attitudes toward immigrants:

(1) The United States will soon be overrun by immigrants, especially from Mexico.
(2) Immigrants take advantage of the welfare system and, in California especially, the lottery.
(3) Immigrants deprive Americans of jobs.
(4) This wave of immigrants is indeed the "wretched refuse" of Asia, Mexico, and Cuba.
(5) Unprecedented numbers of immigrants are currently storming our shores.
This exercise is designed to help students understand that xenophobic attitudes have existed throughout United States history, and that our culture-whatever that culture may mean at any time in history-has survived and, in fact, become enriched by each new wave of immigrants. Through this activity, students might become aware that their fear or disdain of immigrants has been expressed in each generation, especially at times when large numbers of immigrants were entering the country, and that these prejudices may well have been aimed at their own ancestors. This historical perspective may allow students to step outside their normal frame of reference and see immigrants in a new light.

A subsequent examination of contributions to our diverse culture may make students aware that immigrants in each generation have contributed to what might be termed the "hybrid vigor" of this country, perhaps providing a key source of its strength. In addition, studying countries that have rejected pluralism, and suffered economic and social difficulties as a result, might help students to review their own discriminatory attitudes toward immigrants. For example, examining the expulsion of the Huguenots from France that resulted in draining the country of some of its most creative people, and studying the contributions those people made to other cultures, might be instructive.

This activity might lead to examining stereotypes in subsequent lessons. In one high school class a blonde, blue-eyed girl (with a Germanic surname) spoke at length about "those Mexicans" who "don't wash or clean their homes." Directly behind her was a young man whose parents were first-generation immigrants from Mexico; he had been born in that country. Other students fidgeted uneasily as Julie spoke. Finally, Thomas touched Julie's shoulder and said, quietly, "Julie, I'm Mexican." Her reply? "No, you're American!" A dialogue ensued between the two, with the teacher's guidance. By the end of the lesson, Julie, in terms of valuing statements, strongly advocated helping immigrants-an attitude that, for her, continued throughout the unit.

The examination of attitudes toward immigrants is an important exercise for our pluralistic society, not only in border or seaboard states, but also in areas rarely experiencing immigration. Students in such areas may develop stereotypes from adults, from limited contacts, or through hearsay. Students need to explore those values and stereotypes. In a nation founded by immigrants, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, and in the midst of another influx of refugees, students need to be given a historical perspective and to remember, to paraphrase a famous line, "We have met the immigrants-and they are us!"

Note
1The complete text of Franklin's letter, "The German Problem in Pennsylvania" (9 May 1753) can be found in The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2, edited by John Bigelow, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1887, p. 291.From a Speech by a Famous American
I agree that these people are a matter of great concern to us. I fear that one day, through their mistakes or ours, great troubles may occur. The ones who come here are usually the most stupid of their nation. Few understand our language, so we cannot communicate with them through our newspapers. Their priests and religious leaders seem to have little influence over them. They are not used to freedom and do not know how to use it properly. It has been reported that young men do not believe they are true men until they have shown their manhood by beating their mothers. They do not believe they are truly free unless they also abuse and insult their teachers.
And now they are coming to our country in great numbers. Few of their children know English. They bring in much of their own reading from their homeland and print newspapers in their own language. In some parts of our state, ads, street signs, and even some legal documents are in their own language and allowed in courts. In some areas, there is a need for interpreters. I suppose in a few years interpreters will also be necessary in the state government to tell one half of the lawmakers what the other half is saying. Unless the stream of these people can be turned away from this country to other countries, they will soon outnumber us so that we will not be able to save our language or our government. However, I am not in favor of keeping them out entirely. All that seems necessary is to distribute them more evenly among us and set up more schools that teach English. In this way we will preserve the true heritage of our country.