Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Immigrant Integration

A touchy subject in Denmark (not to mention the United States) is immigration. Denmark was one of the first to enact strict immigration rules in the wake of 9-11. The country has received criticism for this stance. They have also closed the doors to further immigration by Iraqi refugees, preferring instead to send money to Jordan or Syria where many of those refugees now live. Critics of the Iraq War have said that Denmark, until recently a key member of the "coalition of the willing", is morally obligated to take in refugees that they helped create. Perhaps there is a ring of truth to that, but this is not the main topic for my post today.

The question I am pondering is what does it mean for an immigrant to integrate into his/her adopted nation? The United States is a land of immigrants, but we have struggled with that throughout our history. At various points of US history, the Irish, the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, and finally, the Latinos have all received ferocious push back from "US born" citizens. Currently, we have seen much bigotry from the GOP on the matter of suppressing the use of Spanish or enacting draconian measures to stop illegal immigration.

Yet, as a nation of immigrants, the US is unique in that there is an understanding of what it means to be American, at least on the basic level. We have a set of ideals, which we sometimes do not fulfill very well, that guide us. These ideals are embodied by the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Our system of government and concept of liberty is what defines us as Americans, although we fight vociferously about what it all means exactly. There is now an argument whether the English language is essential to the American identity, since our founding documents are all in English and we have traditionally spoken English. I do not know the answer to that question, although in our public life together as Americans, I think we should agree to conduct ourselves in English. I also do not want to deny anyone their heritage or their language, because it is our diversity of backgrounds that has made the US strong.

The Danish are struggling with what it means to be Danish. They do have a constitution, but Denmark itself as a land and a people are far older than that document. The Dane are an ancient people whose ancestors were Vikings and who once ruled all of Scandanavia. As Africans and Muslims flood to Europe to escape hardships in their homelands, the question of integration has risen its ugly head.

In today's US Embassy news update, there was discussion of a new report coming out today. It asks: Should men have precedence over women when applying for a job? And is it OK to demand to be examined by a doctor of one's own gender? According to a report to be published today by a group called "Think-Tank for Better Integration" (sounds like an anti-immigrant group named by a Republican...like the jokester who named Bush's open pollution law the "Clear Skies Initiative"), the answer to both questions is no – but according to many immigrants from non-Western countries the answer is yes.

The report, based on a survey of the attitudes and values of foreigners in Danish society, states that many immigrants' "cultural baggage" plays a decisive role in their lack of integration. 92% of all Iraqi residents in Denmark disagree with homosexuality and 50% of those with a Turkish background believe that men should have first refusal on vacant jobs. These are statistics that Denmark's local councils and authorities should take into consideration when formulating integration policies, according to the think tank. "It's up to administrators at local level to stress what is important for integration," says one member of the think tank. "Should a Muslim be forced to work alongside a homosexual, and how should a school teacher react when parents say that their son's education is far more important than their daughter's. There has to be a clear policy."

Clearly explosive stuff, but these are questions people ask, especially when immigrants coming into a country do not seem to value the same things at a basic level that the other citizens do. Hence the question: What does it mean to be Danish? Or to be American? Considering the conflicts of today, can a person be both a "good Muslim" and a "good Dane"? How about a "good American"?

For the Danish, it is the question of Muslims. For Americans, the question is increasingly about Latinos, although the code words will be about "illegals". I watched an interesting show on BBC world this weekend called "The Doha Debates" where this British guy hosts a debate in front of an audience in Dubai on controversial topics. This week was the wearing of the face veil. Many women were indignant that people were not willing to just look in their eyes and see their heart, but insisted on seeing their face too. The question there was one of integration too. If you are an immigrant, is it OK to keep yourself clearly apart from your new country through the wearing of a face veil or anything else? How much of yourself do you have to sacrifice to fit in? Should you even sacrifice at all?

They did not come to a conclusion in that show, and we do not have an answer to the immigration question. The questions posed by the report in Denmark are interesting. I believe a person should have absolute freedom to see the doctor of his or her choice. If you want only female doctors, so be it. If you are a black person and do not want to see a white doctor, that may be a foolish attitude, but I think it is to your benefit to see a doctor with whom you are comfortable. Men should NOT have precedence over women. We live in a society where everyone is considered equal in the eyes of the law, and to give men preference would be discrimination.

I am also terribly sorry that 92% of Iraqi immigrants disagree with homosexuality (not sure how you can disagree with a fact), but they can be as prejudiced as they want in their homes. If you do not like having an openly gay coworker, get another damn job. It is YOUR problem, not the gay worker's. And if a parent tells a teacher that his son's education is more important than his daughter's...so what? As a teacher, you are not asked to agree or disagree with parenting styles or choices. You teach the child you have in your classroom, and if the parents refuse to get help for a female child because she doesn't have a penis, there is not much you can do.

If, as an immigrant, having a culture where women are subverient to men and where freedoms are based on religious law, gay people are not tolerated, etc....why in the world would you move to a Western nation? Especially when you know that nation has laws which directly conflict with your deeply held personal beliefs? Oh, is it about the opportunity to make money? Well, good. Have you ever considered that the freedoms you find so offensive in that society have been the basis for that opportunity to make money? Which is more important to you: suppressing women and gays or making a good living? Life is sometimes full of these hard choices, especially for an immigrant.

I think immigrants should honor their culture, language, and history. But I think too that there must be a desire to fully enter the life of your new nation. Maybe that means learning English (which in the US, we should help you do). Maybe that means gritting your teeth when you are "forced" to work with an openly gay colleague and not say or do anything about it. Maybe it means having to accept authority from a woman over you. Both the immigrant and the new nation have a duty to each other to meet in the middle. If one side refuses, the integration will never occur.

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