This story, in the Chicago Tribune, eloquently touches upon the more deep seated issue that faces America. In my opinion, we, as a nation, are facing an identity crisis. Who are we as Americans? Are we a belief of values, espoused by Thomas Jefferson, and our forefathers? Are we really a nation based on the content of our character or the color of our skin? Very soon, the identity of America will look very different, within decades, “white” Americans will become the minority. What does that mean, and how will we integrate this new dynamic into our culture?
It’s a sense of unrest familiar in small towns and suburbs across America. Immigrants have flooded the country in great numbers in the past. What’s different now is where they’re settling—far from the border states and big cities that long absorbed the huddled masses.
Their integration into small-town America is marked in Manassas, as elsewhere, by a language of fear, resentment and anger. Under pressure from longtime residents, local officials have cracked down, ordering police to dramatically increase the amount of time spent checking people’s Immigration status.
Those authorities say they’re targeting illegality. Others say they’re simply going after brown people.
If we’re due a national conversation about the changing complexion of America, though, it’s not happening in the 2008 campaign.
Barack Obama and John McCain both support what they call “comprehensive” Immigration reform, but neither spends much time on this volatile topic in his presidential campaign. When they do, they don’t address the fundamental tension of America’s great Immigration debate today.
In Manassas, some old-timers watch their home changing and fight the newcomers. Others fight that backlash.
For all of them, it’s a battle for their very identity.
A new complexion
For most of our history, immigrants settled largely in the Northeast and the Midwest. In 1920, nine out of 10 immigrants lived in cities of more than 100,000. The quintessential immigrant destination was Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Now the decline of traditional manufacturing is redirecting immigrants to agricultural centers in the South, tourist centers in the West, smaller cities all over. The Census Bureau first picked up on this dispersion in the 1980s, but the proportion of immigrants in small towns really took off in the mid-1990s.
In Prince William County, where Manassas sits, whites went from 65 percent of the population in 2000 to 52 percent in 2006. Hispanics increased—from 10 percent to 20 percent, roughly—in the same period.
Maureen Wood liked the diversity at first. The students at the high school where she is a substitute teacher taught her Spanish words.
Then the school district put up mobile classrooms.
A friend’s son couldn’t get work as a landscaper when he came home from college for the summer. The company owner said he only hired native Spanish speakers, to make it easier for his crew and foreman.
The changes turned Wood and Kipp into activists. Pressure from citizens like them is having a powerful effect in Prince William County.
Last year, the county board of supervisors ordered its police force to inquire more regularly about people’s Immigration status. They later scaled back that directive, but the thunderous debate had its effect, as immigrants started running scared. Hundreds withdrew from English-as-a-second language programs in local schools.