Ben Franklin. ThinkStock Photos.
Ben Franklin. ThinkStock Photos.

Even Ben Franklin underestimated immigrants

The lore about the United States is that we're a nation of immigrants. But what the textbooks gloss over is that for as long as there have been immigrants in…


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And though it is often portrayed as the lower classes -- those who compete for unskilled labor jobs -- who have the most enmity toward the "invading hordes," it's never just the poor who complain about "the other."

Throughout history, some of the most well-off, well-educated and well-insulated from the unwashed masses have been the shrillest anti-immigrant voices.

Listen to this guy, who was beyond offended that German immigrants were moving into his town and speaking, educating their children and printing newspapers in their native tongue, instead of English:

"Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements and, by herding together, establish their Language and Manners, to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion?"

This was written by my favorite Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, a genius who invented or popularized such myriad modern-day necessities as the modern wood stove and fire departments, and who founded universities and libraries (to name but a very few of Franklin's contributions to our country).

I call Franklin out because I love him so dearly, and because it shows that even brilliant people can prefer their own ("perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind," he wrote).

Also, because he was so laughably wrong about the Germans.

Germans make up an ethnic group in the United States that maintains relatively strong ties to its heritage. My son's high school offers German courses as part of the world languages department, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a little over 1 million people in America speak German fluently. But no one is going around terrified that German speakers haven't properly assimilated to the language, customs and mores of this country.

The United States would be unrecognizable without German imports like beer, hamburgers, kindergarten, bicycles, world-class architecture and the very music that provided the marching rhythms of the Civil War.

The so-called swarthy Germans that Franklin was so frightened would not upend the burgeoning American experience, but instead heartily enrich it. And enrich him, too, since Franklin basically made his fortunes off Gutenberg's printing press.

I give Franklin a pass -- the wonders he ushered into the new world did not exclude the Germans and he co-authored the first treaty of friendship between Germany and America in 1783.

More importantly, Franklin didn't have the power to see into the future to a time when you'd never be able to tell a German descendent from an English one by hearing their unaccented American English behind you in line at the grocery store.

In other words, Franklin was ignorant, but, I believe, not willfully so.

We can't give President Trump, his White House chief of staff John Kelly or any of their acolytes that same benefit of the doubt. Kelly recently made waves by ludicrously proclaiming that immigrants are "not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. ... They don't speak English. They don't integrate well, they don't have skills."

Not only have Kelly's forebears been outed as Irish and Italians who didn't learn the language for decades after moving here, but other Trump administration parrots are also becoming poster children for how well immigrants do assimilate into our culture. One example is conservative pundit Tomi Lahren, who smack-talked today's immigrants even though, it turns out, one of her own ancestors was a Russian man who allegedly forged an immigration document to try to secure his status here.

It'll never change: As long as there are immigrants in this country, there will be a contingent of descendants of immigrants with woefully poor self-awareness and more than a little mean-spiritedness claiming that immigrants don't assimilate.

They'll be dead wrong -- and probably have the audacity to spout their historically inaccurate anti-immigrant propaganda over a taco dinner, in their Japanese car or at a Major League Baseball game played by teams that are 34.5 percent foreign-born.

History tells the tale that immigrants who move here eventually adopt English as their only language and melt into the pot. Anyone who says otherwise is just peddling fake news.


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