Irving Can Help Immigrants

By Mark Krikorian on September 14, 2003

The Dallas Morning News, September 14, 2003

The settlement of large numbers of immigrants in Irving has sparked conflict over declining quality of life. Residents complain of housing code violations, unacceptable public behavior, etc., while activists claiming to speak for immigrants resort to cries of racism.

These tensions are popping up all over, as America experiences the largest wave of immigration in its history. Last year, 1.5 million immigrants, legal and illegal, settled in the United States, bringing the total foreign-born population to more than 33 million.

The problem discussed the most, perhaps because local government has a direct role, is violation of housing codes. Conflicts have arisen over this from Daly City, Calif., to Montgomery County, Md. A recent report on illegal housing units in New York noted that "the neighborhoods in which the greatest number of complaints about illegal conversions are made tend to be those with the largest immigrant populations." And in Los Angeles, thousands of immigrant families live in illegal garage apartments without bathrooms, running water or electricity.

But the corrosive effect that mass immigration can have on quality of life is not limited to housing code violations. There are other issues perhaps less susceptible to government action such as excessive noise, junk cars in the back yard, day laborers loitering on street corners and even a seemingly minor matter like litter. This is a matter of public safety and property values: the threats to fire safety, health and sanitation are matched by an amorphous but real sense of seediness, disorder and declining standards.

The culture clash that Irving and other cities are experiencing is only secondarily a conflict between Latin and Anglo-Saxon norms; it is primarily a conflict between the pre-modern behavior of the village and the expectations of a modern, high-tech, bourgeois society. In effect, two kinds of assimilation are necessary for most of today's immigrants: first is assimilation into a new country; second is assimilation into a new way of life. Either one of these transitions would be difficult, but undertaking both of these changes at the same time is extremely disorienting and destabilizing.

Part of the answer is that the level of immigration needs to be reduced - but that doesn't do the city of Irving any good, since immigration law is mainly a federal preserve and most immigrants currently living there are going to stay. There are law enforcement responses Irving can and should undertake: muscular enforcement of housing codes, for instance, and police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

But such actions, while necessary, are not sufficient. The community must reach out to immigrants and help them understand what is expected of them. A century and a half ago, the Roman Catholic Church fulfilled this function for Irish immigrants, who really, really needed training in urban life. At the turn of the last century, voluntary organizations like the North American Civic League for Immigrants promoted the Americanization of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe.

But no one is doing this for the Mexicans and Central Americans coming today. On the one hand, most Americans today seem content to let newcomers sink or swim. On the other, groups posing as defenders of immigrants' rights are so suffused with self-loathing relativism that they are unwilling to hold immigrants to the same standards of modern middle-class behavior that they would demand of their own children.

Neither indifference nor coddling is the solution for Irving, or for America. What immigrants need is tough love: a warm welcome combined with instruction about what is expected of them.

Local churches and ethnic organizations need to join with groups not usually involved with newcomers - from the Chamber of Commerce to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas - to help integrate these new people into our communities. This goes beyond teaching the English language and American and Texas history, to teaching newcomers when to mow their lawns, how to join the PTA, and why they shouldn't dump their trash in the back yard.

The Center for Immigration Studies is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization which examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. It is not affiliated with any other group.