An Old Struggle to Adapt to a New Country’s Ways

The Immigration Debate | Then vs. Now
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

How do you say steak wid’ in Spanish?

Joseph Vento, the owner of Geno’s Steaks, doesn’t know. And he doesn’t care.

Just read the laminated signs, festooned with American eagles, at his South Philadelphia cheesesteak emporium: This is America. When Ordering, Speak English.

The political statement – coming from a man whose Italian-born grandparents spoke only broken English – captures the anger and discontent felt by many Americans about illegal immigrants.

With a battle looming between the House and Senate on legalizing some immigration violators, the public backlash is framed by two complaints: One, my grandparents came legally. How come these guys can’t? And, two, my grandparents had to learn English. How come these guys don’t?

“Go back to the 19th century, and play by those rules,” said Vento, 66, whose grandfather became a U.S. citizen in 1921.

But history challenges many assumptions about the hurdles aspiring Americans used to face, say scholars of the last massive migration to the United States, which occurred between 1880 and 1920.

“There was no such thing as an ‘illegal’ immigrant,” said Roger Daniels, a member of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island History Committee and author of Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigrants and Immigration Policy Since 1882.

The Old Country often required exit visas, which created the possibility of illegal emigrants. But the United States did not issue entry visas until 1921.

Before that, no meaningful immigration restrictions existed, except for a bar on Chinese enacted in 1882. Congress imposed no other limits on the number of immigrants – from any one country, or in total. About a million arrived each year in the early 1900s. It wasn’t until 1924 that Congress imposed an annual cap of 155,000 immigrants. “If you could get here and weren’t terribly diseased, you could get in,” Daniels said.

By contrast, backlogs, country quotas and annual caps now make legal immigration a tortuous and nearly impossible process for many, said Thomas Conaghan, director of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center in Upper Darby.

Past immigrants, once here, faced a backlash fueled by anxiety about religions, languages and races that were relatively new to the United States. Fear of anarchist and “Red” ideologies and the competition for jobs also played roles.

Help-wanted ads limited applicants to native-born Americans, said Kathryn Wilson, director of education at the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Current critics of illegal immigration echo earlier generations of nativists, say academic experts on ethnicity.

“A lot of the rhetoric was similar: ‘They don’t speak English. They don’t want to be Americans,’ ” said Mae M. Ngai, a University of Chicago historian and author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.

The Senate bill passed last Thursday, which gives some illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens, included an amendment that would make English the national language.

An English-only movement also took shape in the late 19th century, with an abortive attempt to require newcomers to read a passage in English at Ellis Island. In the end, the literacy test was administered, but in the immigrant’s native tongue.

Joseph Vento’s grandfather and namesake, a street-corner jeweler from Sicily, had trouble with English.

“They tried,” Vento said of his grandparents. “They had a hard time. Look at the price they paid. They were limited.”

The Ventos rarely left their South Philadelphia neighborhood. Now, in a way, the neighborhood has left the couple’s descendants. Geno’s sits at Ninth and Passyunk, the hub of Little Italy turned home to thousands of Mexicans.

Some try to order a cheesesteak. And it bugs Vento if they can’t ask for American cheese, provolone or the classic – Cheez Whiz – without pointing.

“If you can’t tell me what you want, I can’t serve you,” he said. “It’s up to you. If you can’t read, if you can’t say the word cheese, how can I communicate with you – and why should I have to bend?

“I got a business to run.”

Vento, who lives in Shamong, put up the signs when the immigration debate seized national headlines six months ago.

With Geno’s Steaks tattooed on his arm, Vento is used to publicizing things, especially what’s on his mind. Speak English signs also poster his Hummer. He has driven through South Philadelphia blaring through the SUV’s P.A. system denunciations of neighborhood business owners who hire illegal immigrants.

“I say what everybody’s thinking but is afraid to say,” Vento said. That many think as he does may be true. The dominance of Latinos among new immigrants has triggered a backlash, said Peter Skerry, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution.

Spanish-speakers make up about 30 percent of legal migrants and roughly 80 percent of illegal migrants, compared with the 21 percent preponderance of Italians a century ago.

“It’s just a huge concentration . . . that raises questions for people about how these immigrants are assimilating,” Skerry said.

He and other experts say that current immigrants are taking no longer to assimilate than Vento’s grandfather did. Now, as then, English takes hold among the children of immigrants, and native languages disappear by the third generation.

What’s different, Skerry said, is that many Americans now value multiculturalism, and technology allows it to flourish. Satellite TV beams soap operas from Latin America to U.S. living rooms, phones make it cheap and easy to connect with relatives back home, and airplanes allow a back-and-forth existence.

In society, “there is a notion that people are entitled to their own culture,” he said. “Assimilation is a dirty word in many quarters. Sometimes, we don’t even use the word anymore.”

Vento is lashing out at that self-assertion by immigrants: “I don’t want somebody coming here to change my culture to their culture,” he said. “They want us to adapt to these people. What do you mean, ‘Press 1 for Spanish’? English, period. Case closed. End of discussion. You better make it the official language.”

Follow-up Story: A Lesson in English; Figures show that demand among adult immigrants for language classes is outpacing funds for such instruction.

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