A new generation of immigrants faces old biases

Andrew Yahkind

There is a question dividing West Bloomfield: Should the township retain its label of being a “welcoming community” for immigrants? You might think there would not be much of a debate on that one in a community that is more than 20 percent foreign-born. (The state average is 6 percent.) But you would be wrong. Apparently, there is vigorous opposition in the township to the label — opposition that culminated last month in a contentious meeting of the township trustees.

I grew up in West Bloomfield, the son of Soviet immigrants. I have watched, with increasing dismay, as this opposition has developed.

West Bloomfield is the kind of place where, within a single strip mall, you can grab a Russian-language newspaper and stock up on traditional dumplings at a Russian grocery store; eat, drink, and dance the night away at a Russian-Georgian restaurant; and get your banking taken care of at a local Ukrainian credit union.

It was with some disbelief that I read a recent News article (“Syrian refugee debate reignites in West Bloomfield”) in which a West Bloomfield resident attempted to explain why the Soviet refugees of yesterday were unlike the Syrian refugees of today.

Supposedly, it comes down to a willingness to assimilate. That resident, who belonged to a generation of Soviet refugee, asserted there is a difference with today’s Syrian refugees who “want a little county inside the country. They don’t want to learn the language; they want us to bend to their culture.”

Sadly, that kind of sentiment reflects a familiar American pattern: all too commonly, members of yesterday’s generation of immigrants slam the door behind them on today’s “different” immigrants. It is a pattern that, unfortunately, we have seen throughout the history of this country.

Two centuries ago, the Know-Nothing political party was rising quickly in American politics on a similar anti-immigrant sentiment. The party argued that the Irish and German Catholic immigrants of that generation were unlike any previous group of immigrants. Why? Because they supposedly would never assimilate in America.

Since that opposition to Catholic immigrants in the 1850s, we have repeatedly seen opposition to new groups of immigrants coming to this country — among them Chinese immigrants at the turn of the century, Cubans fleeing Castro in the 1980s and 1990s

Our fear of refugees seeking freedom has often resulted in deadly consequences. A cursory review of the history books reveals that many of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps were already in full operation when the S.S. St. Louis, with 900 Jewish refugees on board, was denied entry in the United States. When forced to return to Europe, over a quarter of the ship’s passengers ended up perishing in the Holocaust.

Despite fears to the contrary, each prior generation of immigrants has ended up assimilating in its own uniquely American way: they have adopted the ways of their new homeland while not forgetting where they came from.

Like this son of immigrants who arrived in Detroit more than three decades ago, the sons and daughters of the immigrants arriving in Detroit today will learn English in school, embrace American culture, and pledge allegiance to either the Spartans or Wolverines. They will love this country and the unparalleled opportunities it offers them. And they will butcher the language of their ancestral homeland and try (with mixed success) to whip up a few of their favorite old country dishes.

The sons and daughters of today’s immigrants will also invariably have to decide how to react when faced with yet another new generation of immigrants who are, in the storied words of Emma Lazarus, “yearning to breathe free.” I can only hope they remember that — like all of us — they are descended from those who were once labeled as “different” and unwelcome.

Andrew Yahkind is an attorney in Detroit.