- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

One thought more about John Rocker, the Braves pitcher whose disparaging comments about immigrants, perhaps more than anything else in his notorious Sports Illustrated interview, have jeopardized his baseball future. The 25-year-old Macon, Ga., native has done for the vitally important debate about this country's immigration policy what Joseph McCarthy once did for the vitally important debate about communism. That is, he has provided an offensive face his own to caricature one side of this difficult, emotionally freighted, even squeamish-making subject.

Not that things weren't bad enough. To express reservations about the organic changes current immigration levels are bringing to the face of America and, emphatically, not just the face is to risk opprobrium and censure. Before John Rocker, the debate was already what you might call chilled; after John Rocker, only a foolhardy soul would voice an opinion contrary to conventional wisdom, which has it that as a nation of immigrants, our motto should be the more immigrants, the better. According to this same wisdom, admitting 1 million legal immigrants a year (not to mention the estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants) exceeding the 900,000 peak reached during the first decade of the 20th century would seem to be the least we can do. But is it the best we can do?

To ponder this question in any depth is to realize that immigration is as hotly emotional an issue as race, abortion, homosexuality, or any other topic that touches tangled human relationships. Some of us are immigrants; many more of us are their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As such, attempting to determine the fate of those who seek the life we lead necessarily touches inner chords of empathy and guilt, generosity and fear.

It is these emotions that resonate throughout immigration discourse, more often than not actually drowning it out. Savoring the traditions of the Mayflower, the memorable words of Emma Lazarus, the romance of the Statue of Liberty, and the almost mythological memories of Ellis Island is a far more soul-satisfying exercise than the wrenching process of weighing the thorny pros and even thornier cons of immigration to America in the 21st century.

As economist George J. Borjas writes in his new book, "Heaven's Door," we need to pinpoint goals of our immigration policy. Should they be mainly humanitarian? Or should they serve the economic needs of the nation? How many immigrants should come? From what countries? Is there a population point at which mass immigration should cease? Whatever happened to the fabled melting pot, and where can we get another one? In a recent New York Times series on immigration, a reporter described a Queens classroom where English was being taught to Spanish-, Korean-, Chinese-, Arabic-, Urdu-and Bengali-speaking sixth-graders. Was their text about George Washington and the cherry tree? Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence? Maybe Rip van Winkle? No, it was a Chinese folk tale a lovely story no doubt, but hardly the cultural glue it takes to coalesce children from lands where the democratic way is a foreign concept.

When John Rocker described walking through Times Square without hearing English spoken, he was noting a commonplace experience for New Yorkers and other urbanites. His observations weren't off-base; besides his general crudity, it was his negative reaction to what he saw (and didn't hear) that drew scorn and worse upon his head. But, honestly, how many people reading these words have not had a similar reaction to the Babel of languages now heard to the exclusion of English in America, and not just in city centers?

Are they bigots and xenophobes for noticing? For wondering how this confluence of so-far unassimilated peoples will affect the nation? A New Mexico court last month retained a non-English-speaking juror (and his interpreter), a development that should have raised more than a few eyebrows, along with some questions about the fate of our common culture, our common language, not to mention our jury system. (Imagine that practice in Queens.) It passed, however, without comment.

Such issues seem to lie politically dormant, mired in platitudes or just abandoned, too often for fear of social censure. Nobody wants the searing (and conversation-ending) brand of bigot, xenophobe, or, horrors, Rocker. But these issues need to be faced, more urgently even than health care, taxes, or campaign finance reform. How will we speak, teach and legislate in 10 years, 20 years? For the year 2050, should current patterns continue, the Census Bureau projects a population of 400 million people in America, more likely than not an insoluble jumble of distinct nationalities, religions, languages and creeds. Of course, Americans may look forward to the day when the polity resembles the U.N. General Assembly in a land of ethnic enclaves with only credit cards in common. Then again, maybe not. But shouldn't we talk about it?

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