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America and the New Immigrant Experience : They are coming in record numbers, especially to California--a boon to the country, or a potential bust? : Coming Apart

May 05, 1991|David Rieff | David Rieff's book, "Los Angeles: the Third World Capital," will be published in the fall by Simon & Schuster.

NEW YORK — To speak in the language of Cassandra goes against the American grain. The tendency to believe that everything will turn out for the best is even more pronounced when the subject is the new immigration to the United States from the countries of the Third World that began after the sweeping reform, in 1965, of a previously racist immigration code. There is ample reason for this hopefulness. To begin with, Americans have the example, in the great European immigration of the early 1900s, of the successful absorption of millions of people who, to the nativists of that time, seemed just as alien as Salvadorans or Koreans today appear to many Anglo and black native-born Americans. Moreover, ours is an insistently optimistic country, a nation that believes passionately in the idea of fresh starts and malleable destinies.

Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles, long happy to cover its reality with a dream-factory facade. Now, the rest of the country--the urban areas at least--looks to the prototype New American City and sees the possibility that there can be too many dreams for one place to accommodate, much less assimilate.

By all rights, Los Angeles should never have come into being in the first place, having neither water to sustain its people nor a natural port to sustain its economy. But it came into being nonetheless, and has been flourishing ever since. Small wonder that Angelenos have traditionally been unimpressed by the idea of limits of any kind. And yet, they cannot wish away the contradictions posed by the arrival of so many new people, the challenge their presence poses to traditional ideas of what the American nation is and what it can become.

Immigration is a disruptive experience for all concerned. So much attention is paid to the effect that the new immigration wave is having on Southern California that we often lose sight of just how tragic and dramatic the act of coming to America really is. Those who feel threatened by the presence of so many new arrivals should remember that most of these people have sacrificed everything to come--and that one does not walk from El Salvador to Boyle Heights until impelled by the starkest of necessity.

In any case, given the present economic and social catastrophe in Central America and Mexico, and given Southern California businesses' seemingly limitless appetite for cheap and easily exploitable workers, there is really very little chance that immigration will diminish. The challenge lies in what we will make of it and, as some people are anxiously perceiving, what it is making of us.

In sheer numbers, this new immigration is difficult to grasp: Of the 22 million new U.S. residents counted in the latest census, half--11 million--were Latino or Asian; 4.7 million of them were in California, where total population growth for the decade was 6 million.

It is tempting, but wrong, to see this as a replay of the great wave of immigration at the turn of the century. The nature of the 1970s and '80s immigration is different, as is its effect. For one thing, while people immigrating from Europe in 1900 soon lost contact with their home countries, today's immigrants either have come to California from a short distance away (like the Mexicans and the Central Americans), or else, thanks to the 747 and the videocassette, they never lose touch with their homelands, even if they come from across the Pacific, from Iran, or from South America.

There is also the broader question of adaptation. The white ethnic immigrants of a century ago came to a country in which a consensus about culture, style, personal behavior and, to a large extent, even religion, was firmly in place. It was not the immigrants that destroyed this consensus: Television, the globalization of the economy, the adventure of suburbanization and the personal automobile have been the real instruments of this transformation. Today's immigrants arrive in a country that, in many ways, only partly resembles the place it was as recently as 50 years ago. Conformity is no longer the norm because there is nothing to conform to, no single national norm of culture, behavior, religion. In these circumstances, to blame immigrants for being different is to miss the point.

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