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Commentary: Fear of losing culture fuels immigration debate

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  • Navarrette: Opponents see Hispanic immigrants as weakening U.S. identity
  • One town demanded all library books be in English, Navarrette says
  • Hispanics the latest to find themselves at center of culture war
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Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- You must know what's really driving the immigration debate. It's the culture, stupid.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Some opponents of immigration, even the legal kind, fear changes in local culture.

Immigration restrictionists -- and by that, I mean those who want to limit all immigration, even the legal kind -- like to pretend they're so high-minded. Yet they can't help themselves. They always take the low road and harken back to the nativism that greeted earlier waves of immigrants.

The restrictionists insist that what bothers them are merely practical concerns: that our borders aren't secure, that so many immigrants are coming into the country illegally, and that the new arrivals are burdening schools and draining social services once they get here.

Really? If that's the extent of it, then why does the conversation quickly turn to the impact -- both real and perceived -- that immigrants have on American culture through everything from taco trucks to Spanish-language billboards.

That seems to be the issue in North Dakota, where, according to a recent article in USA Today, towns facing tough economic times are nonetheless resisting a cultural transfusion that could save them. In Cooperstown, the locals opposed efforts to bring in a hog plant and a dairy, because those kind of dirty and hard jobs are likely to attract ... guess who? American kids who work at Starbucks? Nope.

The article quotes Orville Tranby, a local community leader in Cooperstown, who says that some residents have told him "face to face" that such facilities might attract Hispanic immigrants who could change the local culture.

You'll find the same fear in Lewisburg, Tennessee. Not long ago, an employee at a local library came up with the radical idea of a bilingual story time where children could hear tales read to them in Spanish. Townspeople wanted no part of that. They demanded that all books purchased by the library, or even donated, be in English-only.

These stories are ridiculous, but they're also helpful. They illustrate what some people are really concerned about with immigration, and it goes well beyond words like "legal" or "illegal."

It's the perception that the country is becoming more Hispanic, that Spanish is replacing English, that Hispanic immigrants are weakening American identity, and that Main Street is turning into Little Mexico. A leader of the vigilante Minuteman movement moronically called it the "colonization" of the United States.

This sort of rhetoric is all about fear -- that those who thrive in the dominant culture are losing their primacy, that the mainstream is being polluted by foreigners, and that our children are going to live in a world where they're going to have to work a lot harder to keep up.

It conjures up the alarm bells that Benjamin Franklin set off about German immigrants in the late 18th century, who he insisted could never adopt the culture of the English, but would "swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours." It popped up in the mid-19th century amid worries that Chinese immigrants were "unassimilable," which led to Congress approving the explicitly-named Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And it helped welcome the 20th century when Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge warned that immigrants (read: the Irish) were diluting "the quality of (U.S.) citizenship" and others complained that Italian immigrants were uneducated, low skilled, apt to send all their money to their home country and prone to criminal activity.

Where have we heard that before? And when will we hear it again? After all, Hispanics may be the latest group to find themselves in a culture war with nativists. But they won't be the last.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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