The economic crisis in Europe has brought a new focus to immigration. When the times are tough, people are reluctant to share. In the recent French Presidential elections, the anti-immigrant and far-right National Party candidate, Le Pen, got 18 per cent of the votes in the first round, surprising everyone. France has seen a fair amount of immigration from the Muslim countries of North Africa, transforming even the looks of some of the sections of Marseilles. France's law against women wearing the veil was an indication of the changing attitude.

The Germans are a pretty homogenous race and they have seen a flood of Turkish workers in the past. Chancellor Ms Angela Merkel recently declared that German efforts at being a multicultural society have utterly failed and she wanted immigrants to make more efforts to integrate with the rest of the people. And, remember that the Germans have been vehemently against Turkey joining the EU.

Arab Spring fallout

The Arab Spring and other revolts in many countries of North Africa have caused a big jump in the number of people from Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia reaching European shores, legally and illegally. In the EU, the Common European Asylum System requires that the country where the asylum seeker first lands is where the application is processed. This has meant that the southern countries of Europe, including Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, have taken the bulk of immigration in the past, and these are also the countries in severe economic trouble now and facing austerity measures. You can be sure immigrants are not feeling particularly welcome there.

An event in the US related to immigration caused a bit of stir recently. The Census Bureau announced mid-May that that more than 50 per cent of newborns in the US are now non-white Caucasians, or as the euphemism goes, “people of colour” and that includes Latinos, Black and Asian. This reflects trends both in fertility rates and immigration. At about the same time, the State of Alabama was passing its harshest anti-immigration law trying to stem the illegal immigration from south of the border. It gives police officers the right to stop and challenge anyone who looked like they may be ‘undocumented'.

People of colour have to watch-out in Alabama. But the changing demographics is an un-stoppable trend — the country is becoming less white. Actually, that is a misnomer, since about 50 per cent of the Hispanics are ‘white' to look at.

A nation of immigrants

The US is a nation of immigrants. As waves of immigrants landed on these shores during the early years of settlement, they drove the natives into smaller and smaller territories and finally into reservations to practice their own cultures and lives and left the mass of the land for the newcomers. The black Africans who first came as slaves, after their emancipation, fought hard to avoid discrimination based on colour. Many charge that discrimination is now more covert than overt.The newcomers who came voluntarily from various European countries were largely due to ‘push' reasons. They were escaping religious and ethnic persecution and saw the US as a new land for them to be free and create a new life. Although they initially tended to stay within their geographic comfort zones where there were others of their ilk, they wanted to integrate. This meant that they slowly began to adopt a common language of English, adjusted their names, and followed various common practices and beliefs.

Slowly, people began to drop their hyphens — to think of themselves not as Italian-American or Irish-American but just American. This was the famous ‘melting pot' argument that all these different peoples integrated. Some communities stayed closely knit, such as the Chinese, who developed their Chinatowns in all major cities, and maintained their distinct culture.

The Hispanic ‘threat'

But the last several years has seen a flood of immigrants not just from south of the border — mostly Mexican — but from other Latin American countries, too. This has created the Hispanic ‘threat' to America, which resulted in many States in the South coming up with various legislations, some even insisting that English be declared as a required language and so on.

But at the same time, something else was happening. The reasons for these new immigrants were pull factors, and not push factors. They were coming to America to take advantage of economic opportunities, not because they were being driven out of their home countries. This meant that they were not very keen on integrating, and preferred to maintain their original cultures and identity, definitely at home, but also outside. They were not embarrassed to speak in their own languages in public.

Another trend emerged — the value of ‘multiculturalism' — that we are a mix of cultures, and need to understand and appreciate the different cultures. Multiculturalism became a topic in many universities (we have a required course in mine), multiculturalism and was being celebrated with special days in many towns. This encouraged further the environment in which people of recent immigration felt comfortable maintaining their cultures.

And there was, of course, technology which facilitated all this. Immigrants could stay in touch with their families back home through cheaper and cheaper means of communication, and faster and faster speeds till it has now become free and instantaneous. This has changed the theme of ‘melting pot' to a ‘salad bowl' where former cultural identities continue to stand out.

The question is how do ‘American values' get imbibed by every new immigrant? At one time, when people were coming from Ireland, Italy, the UK, Russia, Eastern Europe, there were community centres in major towns such as Boston that had classes to learn English, how to shop, kitchen and bathroom hygiene, and so on! There are few such facilities today to help in the integration.

Thus, the American society which, in the past, dealt with integrating different national origins, and different religions, and different languages, and is now again faced with the prospect of a future where it will have to face dealing with skin colour and race all over again. Now, it is the turn of demographics, as the non-white/non-Caucasian slowly becomes the majority.