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With all the current buzz about illegal immigrants in America, outsiders, like me,

cannot help but ponder over what constitutes an American.

That America is a nation founded by immigrants has become a hoary old cliché.
Indeed, the only indigenous Americans are those that were once called Red Indians;
and are now addressed by the politically correct nomenclature of Native Americans.
It is an irony that they have been reduced to an exotic and marginalized minority
in their own land.

Can one really define an American in the unambiguous, clear cut manner that would
identify, say, a Britisher, or an Italian, or a German? The America they live in
has a Paris in Texas, a Birmingham in Alabama and a Moscow in Idaho. Even major
cities and states have modified old-world names like New York, New Orleans, New
Hampshire and New Jersey.

Most former colonial nations – in Africa and Asia, for example – that obtained
independence in the 20th century, lost no time in discarding place names imported
or imposed by their erstwhile rulers. The reverted to the original names; or names
related to that country’s culture and tradition. Not so in America. Even more that
200 years after becoming a free country, Americans are quite content to cling on
to places they, or their parents and grandparents, left behind. There is no desire
to come up with names that would be quintessentially ‘American’.

And it is not just places, either. While talking about a group of Americans, it is
almost de rigueur to add an ethnic prefix; like Italian-American, or Polish-
American, or Russian American. Although most Americans, who pride themselves on
their egalitarianism, would be loath to admit it, there is a bit of cultural
snobbery here too. The one ethnic group that does not deign to require a prefix
comprises those whose ancestors came over from the British Isles. One rarely hears
of an English American. The WASPs seem to have usurped the historical prerogative
of Native Americans; and assumed the mantle of the original inhabitants.

At the other end of the ethnic spectrum are those who came over from Latin
America. Thus, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, et al are lumped together under
the generic soporific of Hispanics. Similarly, immigrants from Korea, Vietnam, and
etcetera are broadly classified as Asian Americans. If this appears reasonable –
and has no racial overtones – why does one never hear of European Americans? Why
does this group alone have the privilege of being identified according to their
specific country of origin?

So, I ask again, who is an American? The question becomes pertinent when applied
to the vexed issue of immigration. If an Algerian, for example, plants his roots
in France, there is no question of his immigrant status; because he is obviously
not French. He stands out. On the other hand, if a Korean somehow gets to America,
what distinguishes them from the tens of thousands of their compatriots in the
USA? Some would argue that it does not matter, so long as they came by the legal
route. But why does the legal route almost invariably involve a long and tortuous
process? When an unending stream of Europeans descended on Ellis Island – in the
early part of the last century – their ‘legality’ was established in a matter of
hours.

Sure, no one can deny that the prosperous America of today probably would not
exist, if it were not for their toil and industry and sharp business acumen. So
welcoming them with open arms made a lot of sense – then. Now, a similar – if
somewhat smaller – wave of immigrants, have become a problem. Why? Because they
are sneaking in illegally. Why are they sneaking in? Because the legal route is
unendingly arduous – and the chances of success are severely restricted.
I can hear the counter arguments swelling already. No civilized country would let
in outsiders blindly – without adequate checks and balances. All countries are
wary of being inundated by foreigners. However, in the case of America, who is an
outsider? What makes Jane Krakowski of 30 Rock different from the thousands of
Krakowskis back in Poland? Only the circumstance that her forebears came over to
America and settled there.

Another point to ponder is that the current debate is focused on Hispanics. There
is a genuine concern that a flood of Hispanics sweeping into America – when added
to the millions who are already there legally – would alter the demographic and
cultural make-up of the country. Spanish – and not English – could become the de
facto dominant language. What if it does? In a country of immigrants, why should
one declining group – the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – have the divine right to
decide the lingua franca of the USA? They have done it for two hundred years, of
course, compelling generations of Italians and Poles and Norwegians – not to
mention Asians and Hispanics – to learn English, in order to be accepted as an
‘American’. That is why only English movies and television shows, for example, are
categorized as ‘mainstream’, while those in Spanish – which is spoken by almost
half the population – are classified as ‘regional’.

I believe – at this critical juncture in its evolution – America needs to make up


its mind about what it wants to be. If it wants to remain a White, English-
speaking nation, that’s fine. But let it so declare unequivocally. It took more
than 180 years for Blacks to attain some measure of self respect – although they
are still a long way away from true equality. It took that long for a Catholic to
become President – though he was White and from the ‘old country’. If the people
who govern America are comfortable in their WASP cocoon, let them stop
pussyfooting around – pretending to be otherwise. It is time to stand up and be
counted. It is time to decide who is an American.