The Debate Over Immigration Has a Human Face A Literary Approach

Dennis Banks

The debate over immigration policy in the United States continues with increasing rancor and agitation. Questions about who should be allowed to become an American elicit strong feelings among many citizens. Consider several occurrences over the past few years. California voters in 1994 passed Proposition 187, which bars the children of illegal aliens from attending public school (a measure now under legal challenge). The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 allows states to deny Medicaid and welfare benefits to legal immigrants who may have long held jobs and paid U.S. income taxes.
The most recent immigration law (the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996) may send tens of thousands of people who are now illegal-but have been following an established procedure to become legal-out of the country for a period of three or ten years. "Congress has essentially moved the goal posts in the middle of the game," say two reporters in a recent Washington Post article.1

Are we becoming a nation of xenophobics? Have we lost that circle of compassion for other living creatures that Einstein describes in the quotation prefacing this article...or did we ever have it? Are we not all just people looking for somewhere safe to live?

We have, of course, been through this before. Successive waves of immigrants have encountered hostility as well as welcome in America-especially during the great waves of immigration. In colonial times, German pacifists seeking safe ground in Quaker-founded Pennsylvania were looked upon unfavorably by some English colonists. Irish victims of the 1840s potato famine faced job discrimination and vicious racial stereotyping for decades after their arrival here.

The same tune of racial inferiority was played during the great wave of late 19th and early 20th century European immigration, which brought a huge influx of Italians, Jews, and other southern and eastern Europeans to our great industrial cities. On the West coast, meanwhile, nativist resentment against job competition from Asians (expressed by Irish workers among others) led to the first national restrictions on immigration based on place of origin, in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Is the current wave of anti-immigrant feeling really any different from what has occurred in the past? Yes, according to Nathan Glazer, author of a classic study of the impact of immigration on American society, Beyond the Melting Pot. 2 He points to the following issues in the contemporary debate: 3

There are calls for removing immigrants from affirmative action programs on the basis that these were intended to address a historic United States problem.
The recent publication of Alien Nation has added fuel to the debate.4 Its author, Peter Brimelow, contends that immigration can no longer be accepted as part of the free market mentality (which does, however, support the free movement of capital and physical resources across borders). Nor, he says, is immigration necessarily a humanitarian process. Brimelow points to the 1965 Immigration Act as the watershed for a new wave of immigration that is the largest in our history. He quotes projections suggesting that by the mid-21st century, the United States will no longer have a white majority, nor will blacks be the largest minority. The author views recent immigrants not as an important addition to the U.S. work force, but as a drain on the economy-people admitted to this country not for their job skills but for purposes of family reunification. Past immigration waves were followed by lulls that allowed for adjustment and assimilation; without such a lull, says Brimelow, this current wave will be overpowering.

Another viewpoint on contemporary immigration is offered in Sanford Ungar's Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants.5 He points out that the one million immigrants (70 percent legal) who enter the United States each year constitute only 100,000 more per year than during the previous peak decade of 1901 to 1910. Rather than imposing a previously unknown stress on American society, "today a million people obviously represent a much smaller percentage of the American population overall than they did in the first decade of the 20th century."6 Moreover, says Ungar, we are a wealthier society now than we were then. What is different today-besides immigration restrictions that didn't exist a century ago-is who is coming to America. Says Ungar: "The great ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity among the new immigrants is probably the main factor causing the old, sacred melting-pot image of America finally to give way to something more realistic, like a mosaic or a salad bowl."7

How can social studies teachers help students gain perspective on the current debate over immigration? One way is to examine history, and to compare past and present immigration with regard to its causes, its impacts, and the controversies it has engendered. This entails study of both objective facts and subjective beliefs about the meaning of immigration to our nation.

Another way to approach the subject is through the use of literature. An integrated approach that combines social studies and literary instruction can "restore a vibrance to history education"8 by presenting the human element as a balance to the larger analysis of political and economic forces.

The following young adult novels, short stories, poems and songs are recommended as the literary component of an integrated social studies and language arts unit on the changing patterns of United States immigration. As students read about the experiences of immigrants, now or in the past, they might focus on one character (it is likely to be the young protagonist) and try to answer these questions:

Coming to America: the Past
Just as immigration has been one of the great constants of American history, the story of immigration consists of millions of individual stories. The following works of literature have been chosen to represent different eras and facets of the immigrant experience in the United States.

Land of Hope. Land of Promise. Land of Dreams.
Janet Lowery Nixon
This recent trilogy is set during the great immigration wave at the turn of the last century. It tells the stories of three girls who meet and become friends on the voyage from Liverpool to New York City. Rebekah Levinsky, whose family is Jewish and from Russia, is the protagonist of the first book in the trilogy, Land of Hope. In America, she becomes Rebecca, and the novel describes her adaptation to life on the Lower East Side of New York, where she grows into an independent and educated young woman. Land of Promise tells the story of Rose Carney, whose journey begins in Ireland. This book describes Rose's encounters with the political and social scene in turn-of-the-century Chicago. The last book in the trilogy, Land of Dreams, turns to a rural setting as Kristin Swenson and her Swedish family settle on a Minnesota farm. Each of these books examines the immigrant struggle to adapt and assimilate, with a common thread provided by the yearning of all three girls to become "American" and to gain a previously unimaginable independence.

Dragon's Gate and Dragonwings
Laurence Yep
These two stories describe the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the American West in two periods of history set forty years apart. Otter, the young protagonist of Dragon's Gate, unexpectedly has his wish fulfilled, and joins his father and uncle in "the land of the Golden Mountain" as they take part in the post-Civil War construction of the first transcontinental railroad. But Otter quickly discovers that the Chinese "guest" workers, including the heroic Uncle Foxfire, occupy the lowest rung on the American social ladder, and are in fact being compelled to perform the most dangerous jobs in tunneling through the Sierra Nevada. This book examines the nature of dreams: those of the railroad builders; those of Uncle
Foxfire, who wants to learn skills that will help to modernize China; and those of Otter, as he seeks a place in the Great Work of freeing his nation from Manchu rule, but finds himself confronted with a struggle for freedom that is just as compelling in America.
Dragonwings, set in San Francisco in the first decade of the 20th century, was inspired by an account of a Chinese immigrant who built and tested a biplane in Oakland in 1909. This novel examines life within San Francisco's Chinatown, where "companies" and "brotherhoods" vied in offering social safety nets to immigrants struggling to survive and adapt in a sometimes hostile environment. Moon Shadow and his father, Windrider, venture into the world of the "Demons" (Americans), moving from a tentative friendship with their white landlady and her niece to a solid comradeship in the perilous wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project.
Selected and illustrated by Veronica Lawlor
This is a collection of images and reminiscences of people who passed through Ellis Island as children or adults between 1900 and 1925, with biographical sketches to complete their stories of the immigrant experience. It was an NCSS Notable Children's Book in 1996.

as blue glass, fix on me:

"We must speak English.

We're in America now."

I want to say, "I am American,"

but the evidence is stacked against me.

My mother scrubs my scalp raw, wraps

my shining hair in white rags

to make it curl; Miss Wilson

drags me to the window, checks my hair

for lice. My face wants to hide.

At home, my words smooth in my mouth,

I chatter and am proud. In school,

I am silent; I grope for the right English

words, fear the Italian word will sprout

from my mouth like a rose.

I fear the progression of teachers

in their sprigged dresses,

their Anglo-Saxon faces.

Without words, they tell me

to be ashamed.

I am.

I deny that booted country

even from myself, want to be still

and untouchable

as these women

who teach me to hate myself.

Years later, in a white

Kansas City house,

the psychology professor tells me

I remind him of the Mafia leader

on the cover of Time magazine.

My anger spits

venomous from my mouth.

I am proud of my mother,

dressed all in black,

proud of my father

with his broken tongue,

proud of the laughter

and noise of our house.

Remember me, ladies,

the silent one?

I have found my voice

and my rage will blow

your house down.

Song lyrics that make interior thoughts public are also poetry. The song excerpt on this page is from the musical Rags, which tells the story of a group of American immigrants in the early 20th century. How do the feelings expressed in these lyrics compare with the emotions described by Maria Mazziotti-Gillan? What do students think about the concept of American society as a "melting pot"? a "salad bowquot;? a "mosaic"? What metaphor would students choose to best describe modern American culture?

Children of the Wind
lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
music by Charles Strouse
We're children of the wind

Blown across the earth

Pieces of the heart

Scattered worlds apart

So far from those we love

All children of the wind.

Children of the wind

Longing to be one

Half a world away

We will make our way

Great ships and iron trains

Cross the seas and plains

Take us to the day

Bring us to the shore

No more

The children of the wind.

Teaching about immigration by using literature can add a needed human dimension to one of the oldest debates in our history, one which-in its current manifestation-is overwhelmingly negative and foreboding. This human dimension is essential if students are to truly understand the complexity of the issue.

1. Jacqueline L. Salmon and William Branigin, "Revised Laws Leave Many Area Immigrants in Limbo," The Washington Post (February 18, 1997).
2. Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970).
3. Nathan Glazer, "Debate on Aliens Flares Beyond the Melting Pot," The New York Times (April 23, 1995), E3.
4. Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation: Common Sense about America's Immigration Disaster (New York: Random House, 1995).
5. Sanford Ungar, Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
6. Ibid., 27.
7. Ibid., 20.
8.M. O. Tunnell and R. Ammon, The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History through Children's Literature (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993), viii.
Teaching Resources
Beatty, Patricia. Lupita Manana. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1992.
Brown, Wesley and Amy Ling, editors. Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. New York: Persea Books, 1991.
Buss, Fran L. Journey of the Sparrows. New York: Dell, 1991.
Crew, Linda. Children of the River. New York: Dell, 1989.
Lawlor, Veronica. I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project. New York: Viking, 1996.
Mazziotti-Gillan, Maria. "Public School No. 18: Patterson, New Jersey," Winter Light (Midland Park, NJ: Chantry Press, 1985); cited in Daniela Gioseffi, ed., On Prejudice: A Global Perspective (New York: Anchor Books, 1993).
Nixon, Janet Lowery. Land of Dreams. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994. Land of Hope. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992. Land of Promise. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1993.
Temple, Frances N. Grab Hands and Run. New York: Orchard Books, 1993.
Yep, Laurence. Dragon's Gate. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Dragonwings. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
Dennis N. Banks is Assistant Professor at the State University of New York in Oneonta, NY.

Stories of the New Immigrants
The immigrants of recent decades share many characteristics with their enterprising forebears. They come seeking economic opportunity on the one hand, escape from war, famine, political oppression and even death on the other. Often, other members of their families try to follow. Those who wait in line for their chance (or are granted asylum) are legal immigrants and constitute the vast majority. Those who jump the fence, so to speak, are the illegals-many of whom have overstayed their visas, others having entered the United States from Mexico via border crossings.

Children of the River
Linda Crew
This is the story of a Cambodian girl who must adjust to life in a new country without the support of her closest family members. Having fled the Khmer Rouge in the company of her aunt's family, Sundara is now a high school student in Oregon. She is torn between obeying the traditional rules of Cambodian society and embarking upon a friendship with an American boy. She is also torn between the desire for her past experiences to be understood, and her reluctance to become an object of study by her classmates. This novel effectively underlines some of the cultural differences which Sundara must cope with as she adjusts to life in the United States.

Grab Hands and Run
Frances N. Temple
In this novel, Felipe is twelve years old... and running for his life. When his father disappears in the middle of the night, leaving no trace but his motorcycle along the road, Felipe and his mother and sister are forced to disappear too-and head for sanctuary in Canada. The El Salvadoran countryside is not the most hospitable for a mother and two small children. Even less hospitable is their reception in Guatemala, then Mexico, then the United States. Luckily, they have enough money to buy their way across borders and onto buses, until their good luck runs out in Texas. This book presents a portrait of a family undergoing extreme stress, yet bearing hardships with great determination, all seen through the eyes of Felipe.

Journey of the Sparrows
Fran L. Buss
The four children in this story, like Felipe, are escaping from political oppression. Maria, Oscar, Julia and Toma enter the United States nailed into a crate in the back of a truck. They are literally shipped to Chicago, where they undergo struggles that would tax the strongest of adults. These children display a depth of human spirit that allows love and courage to triumph over a system that seems determined to crush them.

Lupita Manana
Patricia Beatty
The young people in this story are fleeing not political but economic oppression. Of the border crossings described in this and the above two novels about illegal immigrants, theirs is the most realistic and dangerous. Once across the border, their adventure has hardly begun. They must deal with jobs, bosses, police, and la migra (slang for the U.S. Border Patrol), existing in a state of constant fear while still facing the conventional adolescent problems of finding love and achieving maturity. The complexity of their struggle makes for involving and provocative literature.

Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land
Wesley Brown and Amy Ling, editors
This anthology is "a reimagining, through short stories, of emigration to and migration within the United States during the twentieth century." The stories are presented under four headings: Arriving, Belonging, Crossings, and Remembering. Whether it is a young girl recalling her one visit to her grandmother in Barbados ("To Da-Duh, In Memoriam" by Paule Marshall), or a Japanese boy dreaming of playing Shakespeare ("Japanese Hamlet" by Toshio Mori), these stories convey the common threads in diverse immigrant experiences. Although intended for an adult audience, many of the stories in this volume are suitable for middle and high school students.

Immigration in Poem and Song
Poetry can reveal the inner workings of the human heart. The accompanying poem by Maria Mazziotti-Gillan describes her childhood experiences as an immigrant in an American public school. The poet reflects on the impact of the Americanization process on individuals, and raises questions about its destructive aspects. Some questions for students to consider after reading this poem are: What does the poet fear losing? What does she find humiliating? Why can't she say "I am American"?
Public School No. 18:
Patterson, New Jersey
Maria Mazziotti-Gillan
Miss Wilson's eyes, opaque