The American Immigration Debate: Walls, National Anthems and Languages


By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 17, 2006


I have lived in America longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, including Liberia, where I was born. I’ve contemplated becoming a citizen but after all these years, I seem content to be a ‘permanent resident alien’ rather than to become an American citizen. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the easiest decision to live with, after all, millions around the world would gladly give an arm and a leg for a visit; millions here anxiously wait to become citizens. So for me, it is an ever present question: “To be or not to be”, as they would say.

The citizenship debate has become the hottest topic in America and I’m once again forced to contemplate my options. A recent editorial opinion piece carried by the New York Times was written by Helene Cooper, under the title: “The Day an Immigrant Refugee Can Say, ‘I’m an American’”. I like the piece and understand the writer’s sentimental view somehow. But it forces me to take a deeper and more critical look at America, specifically, its contradictory policies.

While visiting West Berlin in 1963, President Kennedy said, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never put up a wall to keep our people in”. He also said, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I’m a citizen of Berlin”). Many believe that that was the greatest speech delivered by Kennedy.

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan urged Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” Two years later the people of Berlin began to dismantle it as the world looked on in glee. Many consider that symbolic moment the final triumph of democracy over communism and the end of the Cold War, making America the lone Super Power.

But if the wall separating East and West Berlin was such a horrible barrier to peace and freedom, why are some congressional people and ordinary Americans calling for erecting a wall along the Mexican border? When did that become such a patriotic American idea?

Many argue that in this day of terrorism, you can’t leave your borders open; the terrorists might come through. But the reality is no terrorist has been caught on the America-Mexico border. On the other hand, many have come through Canada. A couple of weeks ago, a joint Canadian-American investigation exposed cells of terrorism in Canada. The worse news is, they were all homegrown --- yes, all the culprits were either citizens or permanent residents of Canada, including some teenagers! Is anyone calling for fences along the Canadian border? No, the fences are for Mexicans.

The famous inscription on the Statute of Liberty reads:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

That’s the America everyone loves to love. That message welcomed strangers, mainly from Europe, and it still warms their hearts remembering the promise. Is that America closed to Mexicans and others from the American continent? Why?

Many are supposedly angered that Spanish-speaking people come to these shores and refuse to learn English. They insist on retaining their culture instead of assimilating. Well, historians tell us that earlier Europeans to this country, Germans specifically, took longer to assimilate than the Hispanics… Nobody forced them to fasten the pace of assimilation, it was never an issue, but now it is. Why?

During this current immigration debate many Americans are reportedly annoyed that Spanish-speaking immigrants have had the audacity to sing The Star Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem in Spanish. To them it is an affront. They ask, “How come they don’t learn to speak English if they want to become American citizens”? Echoing public opinions, as politicians are wont to do, President George Bush said, “I think people who want to be citizens ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English.”

But this is not the first time the American national anthem has been sung publicly in other languages. The song was sung in German as early as May 8, 1905.

A Spanish version of the song was written and presented to President McKinley as early as 1901 upon the acquisition of Puerto Rico and an Italian version was sung at Carnegie hall in 1919. Why deny Mexicans the freedom to sing this beloved anthem in Spanish now? When did this become the new “path to citizenship”?

A wall wasn’t good for the city of Berlin, and a wall is not good now -- not good for Canada or for Mexico. Just like President Reagan, we must insist that they “tear down this wall”. Spending billions of dollars to keep your neighbors away is not a good recipe for a Super Power preaching the new buzzword, globalization.

It was President Woodrow Wilson who once said, “I would rather belong to a poor nation that was free than to a rich nation that had ceased to be in love with liberty.” America’s promise to the suffering masses of the world is liberty; without it, America is nothing.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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