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The New Americans

Commentary: Still a vaunted destination, the US is the immigrant Olympics, and new citizens are gold medalists. THE NEW IMMIGRANTS

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THE scene was a mini-market in Boston's ethnically diverse South End on a Saturday morning. Customers were picking up the morning newspapers.

Two young men from Uganda stood by the cash register. For unknown reasons one of them was loudly condemning the United States as materialistic, unfriendly, dirty, and wasteful. He blustered for several minutes while people avoided him.

Then an elderly man in a neat, dark suit looked up at him, shrugged, and with a Yiddish echo said, "So, leave."

It was as if he had raised a small American flag and given it one quick, patriotic wave.

The irony is that despite well-known excesses and shortcomings, the United States of America remains the premier destination of the world's immigrants. Instead of coming and leaving, they arrive and stay by the millions. The exercise of liberty, as a political and historical fact, still beckons most clearly from the American landscape despite significant changes in immigration laws.

Few newcomers want to leave. Grumble as they may, drive cabs as many do, they cluster together in communities and businesses for friendship and survival, and speak English hesitantly or not at all. But they stay and learn the irresistible ways of America.

Not surprisingly, voices are being raised that there is enough of "them" now, either legally or illegally. Over the last decade or so, too many immigrants have arrived, say the critics. The immigrants aren't assimilating; they cost too much, add to a bulging population, don't vote, and don't share good, old American values. They have become an environmental problem. Snatch the welcome mat away, slam the door, say the critics.

In the years between 1880 and 1924, the ideal behind the US motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) was much easier to embrace. Those who had come to the US prior to 1880 could afford to be magnanimous and establish a national policy of welcoming the expectant masses stepping off the crowded boats at Ellis Island.


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