His arm reached deep into the brown double bag, creating just the right space at the bottom for the next heavy item. We watched with joy the speed and accuracy of the lean, middle-aged man placing our purchases in the proper sequence, so as to protect the more vulnerable.
An increasingly rare phenomenon in our time.
In 1959, after my arrival in Florida as a 22-year-old refugee, supermarkets — and everything about them — were among the unforgettable first impressions. Apart from the sheer quantity of food, the attention paid to packaging boggled the European mind. As well as performing a service to customers, the insistence on care and precision seemed also to provide important early training for the mostly high-school age youngsters who did the bagging. Later, they would need to comply with similar standards in all walks of life.
Florida’s then governor, as related to me by an elderly professor at Florida State University, used to bag and deliver groceries in his teens. That, and the exclusively American attitude of expecting children of privilege to work in their teens regardless, also sent a splendid message to newcomers. Immigrants who, more often than not, had arrived from countries in which just getting by was the standard, could learn all about American requirements through bagging groceries.
Not any more.
America no longer requires of immigrants that they comply with standards, or even take serious note of the laws and customs — not to mention language — that have made America, well, America. Some, perhaps many, still do, but the requirements are gone.
And last week, two political correspondents of National Review joined Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, in calling for a constitutional amendment that would remove the requirement whereby candidates for president and vice president of the United States be native-born citizens.
The Founding Fathers presumably created the special requirement because in other branches of government naturalized citizens were likely outnumbered by native-born ones. We have nine justices of the Supreme Court, 100 senators, 435 members of the House of Representatives. In addition, deliberations take place over time. But all executive power is vested in a single, solitary person who may have to act on a moment’s notice. Such a person had better display knee-jerk reactions typical of, and unique to, native-born Americans.
“And what of those who arrived here as infants?” advocates of the proposed amendment ask. “What is the difference between them and the native-born?”
Alas, laws are not made for the exception.
As if to answer the question, President Bush — inspired by his recent visit to Ellis Island — is considering a grant of legal resident status to 3 million Mexicans who are in America unlawfully. If he so decides, 3 million people whose first act was to break the law could end up eligible for the presidency. Since the Constitution charges the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” even the most tolerant among us might perceive an incongruity.
Tolerance is important, and native-born Americans possess a special brand of it so much so that my personal opposition to such an amendment is based on the inability of most immigrants to acquire it in their own lifetime, myself included. But the tendency is to confuse wise and necessary legal provisions with an absence of tolerance and generosity. “Why are you anti-immigrant,” or: “Have you got something against Mexicans?” are the silly questions typically posed. This nation has prospered upon a solid foundation of laws. We cannot afford to replace that with the quicksand of sudden emotional impulses, or of temporary political manipulation.
How political as opposed to thoughtfully considered the issue has become was demonstrated by the New York Times last Sunday. Not long ago, the Times promoted the metamorphosis of illegal aliens into “undocumented immigrants.” Now, reporting the plan under consideration in the Bush White House, its headlines refer to the 3 million Mexicans as being in the country “illegally” and “unlawfully.” Of course, those millions would presumably vote Republican if President Bush makes them legal. Were they instead potential Democratic voters, the New York Times would surely avoid such mean-spirited words.
America’s need is to reclaim standards while some of us can still remember them. Whether at the supermarket or in the legal system, we will not prosper much longer if standards become permanently lost.
Let us restore considerably higher levels of expectation — at the checkout counter, and in government — before we think seriously about amending the Supreme Law of the Land.
Balint Vazsonyi, a concert pianist and director of the Center for the American Founding, grew up in Hungary.