I remember reading that back in the last great wave of European immigration to the USA (in the early 1900s), more than 100 languages were spoken in the New York City schools. (There are even more today!) But by third or fourth grade all youngsters, no matter their backgrounds, were usually proficient in English, no matter what was spoken at home. And so Poles and Italians became “Americans” –quickly!


The great flows of humanity from eastern Europe, Italy, Poland, Russia and other nations into New York City and other seaports was criticized at the time by many “nativists,” earlier arrivals from other lands who were now “Americans” and wanted the borders closed. Ultimately, two decades later, with Europe locked in conflict, during / after WW I , America did close its doors to immigrants.


More than 125 million Americans can trace their origins back to ancestors who passed through the port of New York, past the Statue of Libery and then stepped ashore on Ellis Island. Those “…tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of [your] teeming shore…” did come to NY by the millions. Some settled in the city and many others moved west, south and north. They and their descendants were educated, built wealth, enriched our land, contributed to our culture, secured our heritage as the Land of the Free, and made many educational, economic, scientific and public service contributions to the USA. The English language written and spoken was key to upward mobility — no laws were needed, no hard and fast rules on what could or couldn’t be spoken. There was universal buy-in to the common language of the land. And this story points out, there still is that buy-in.


So it’s good news that recent immigrants, yes, speaking a different language and with different customs, are assimilating as did generations past, and embracing “America” as did so many men and women and children in past centuries. This says great things about our country and about them (our most recent arrivals).


We were inspired by this from the story…


“A study released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, reports that in families like the Peredas, for whom Spanish is the dominant language among immigrant parents, English fluency increases across generations. By the third generation, Spanish has essentially faded into the background.” Opportunity is enhanced by fluency in English — Spanish language can be maintained within the family, of course, and in the neighborhood. And as this story points out, there is usually a Spanish-speaking person who can help those who have not mastered English.


But opportunity is usually found in the greater society, and English lanugage is a key that opens doors. We don’t have to feel threatened because some of us speak Spanish or another language. Maybe more Americans should be multi-lingual.


One of the first tests for earlier immigrants was the entrance of the US in the Great War (1917) and the hanging question was, would immigrants or their descendants go to war against the Old Country. (Biggest population was of German origin.) Question answered: Yes, they did go to Europe to face Germans in trenches. In two wars. And the government turned to its immigrants for financial and other help — like this:


“Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty,” a government ad headline read (with photo of Lady Liberty) — “Your Duty: Buy US Government Bonds in the 2nd Liberty Loan of 1917.” And buy they did — through the series of Liberty Loans and the war bonds of WW II.


America — the Nation of Immigrants, President John Kennedy called us in his prize-winning book. Not many other nations have welcomed so many nationalities and peoples to its shores, and actually asked so little in return. Do well, we might say as they arrive. What the Lady in the Harbor actually does say is “…I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” as 34-year old Emma Lazarus wrote for the Statue of Liberty. “…Mother of Exiles, from her beacon hand glows world-wide welcome…”


Oh, and a Frenchman, Fredric Auguste Bartholdi, who conceived of and created the Statue of Liberty — He said the sculpture would have to be “monumental,” to “produce an emotion in the breast of the spectator … because its size is in keeping with the idea that [it] interprets, and with the place it will occupy (the USA).” A fitting monument to American independence and freedom. It is – well done!


And the findings of the Pew study are also a fitting and comforting monument to America in this century, too — the last to come continue to master English and embrace the ideas and ideals of what it means to be an American!


Hank Boerner




Accountability Central


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