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ELLIS ISLAND – Quick: How many amendments to the Constitution are there? Can’t say offhand? Then you would not have been among the 20 new citizens from 15 different countries who swore their allegiance to the Constitution at Ellis Island this week. They were expected to know that fact along with many others about U.S. government and history that most native-born Americans would have been hard-pressed to recall.

The goose-bump-provoking scene of men and women from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America tightly clutching their small American flags as they joined the ranks of the millions who came before them through the great hall at Ellis Island happened the day before the presidential candidates addressed a major Hispanic organization, as they courted the votes of the fastest-growing group in the population.

But even as McCain and Obama recognize Hispanic clout, just showing up at a Latino event can be politically risky these days, particularly for Republicans, given the hostility of the anti-immigration forces. Case in point: Utah’s Chris Cannon -- even with the backing of President Bush, his state's governor and two senators -- was recently shellacked in his congressional primary. Cannon’s sin? Support for immigration reform.

“Any Republican who’s running for office and believes the immigration issue is dead should take another look and see what happened to Mr. Cannon,” Rep. Tom Tancredo crowed to the Salt Lake Tribune. The leader of the opposition to immigration reform, Tancredo would argue that he is not against immigration, only illegal immigration. But the often-angry debate sounds decidedly nativistic.

Take the “English only” proposals -- they’re aimed at all newcomers, not just illegal immigrants. A bill in Congress calling for “English only” ballots has nothing to do with illegals -- they can’t vote. These are mean-spirited measures designed to punish new Americans, especially the fast-growing Spanish-speaking population.

Though talk-show hosts -- led by CNN's Lou Dobbs -- stir up the anti-immigrant venom, the keep-out-the-foreigners feelings are real. Look at a sampling of responses to an article in the Las Vegas Sun quoting state and local officials on the positive effect of immigrants on the economy.

“I told Carpets-N-More that the only installer I would allow into my home had to be a black or white AMERICAN who spoke English,” fumed one reader. “Guess what, they sent me just what I asked for: 1 black and 1 white American, born and bred.” “This is not America anymore,” lamented another, “no one speaks the language anymore. Everyone is catered to, the Mexicans, Muslims, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Indians, Africans, you name it.”

And it’s not just a few cranks sounding off to a newspaper who feel that way. When the Pew Research Center asked last year whether “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values,” almost half -- 48 percent -- of those surveyed said yes.

At a time when the country is experiencing the biggest wave of immigration, in raw numbers, in its history, some of this trepidation is understandable. Though the newcomers bring with them a spirit of entrepreneurship, a willingness to work hard and contribute to their new nation, Americans have never warmly welcomed strangers, people who didn't look and sound like them.

That’s why a visit to Ellis Island, now operated by the National Park Service as a museum of immigration, is so instructive. It was the landing spot for 12 million new arrivals at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries -- the period of the largest influx of immigrants as a percentage of the population. The native-born descendants of the Western European settlers were no happier about that deluge of “huddled masses” from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe than today’s are about newcomers streaming up from Latin America and in from Asia and Africa.

But now more than 40 percent of our population -- including Steve and our children and grandchildren -- can trace their ancestry through that small outcropping in New York Harbor. Given those numbers, many of those offspring of the Ellis Island immigrants must be among those who find today's newcomers threatening.

They should go to a naturalization ceremony, especially if they could go to one at the spot where their forebears got off the boat. They should see these excited new Americans following in the footsteps of their own frightened ancestors who arrived on these shores seeking a better life. Not only would they be ashamed of their take-up-the-drawbridge mentality, but they would also find someone who could tell them how many amendments there are to the Constitution.


Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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