26 June 2018

Immigrant forever?

We are almost all immigrants, and we are almost all settlers

The word “immigrant,” applies to someone performing the action of immigrating: coming to a country to establish residence. Many English words ending in the suffixes -ant or -ent derive from the way present participles are built in Latin or French. Imported from those languages into English, they became nouns or adjectives. “President” is the one that presides; “dependent” is a noun or adjective equivalent to “depending”  (-ing being the native English suffix for the present participle), and so on.

The point I want to stress is that many words ending in -ent and -ant, do not denote a permanent condition, but rather a circumstance.  One is a “president” while she presides (save the courtesy title used in the United States towards former presidents); one is an assistant while he assists.  Other similar words are contestant, applicant, incumbent: they all refer to a subject in the particular circumstance denoted by the corresponding word that begot them.

(No, this note is not about linguistics…  Or perhaps it is, as much as language is a social construct.)

What about “immigrant”?  Is one an immigrant forever? Personally, I immigrated to the United States a few decades ago, and stayed put in the same city ever since. In other words, I stopped migrating, emigrating, and immigrating.

In these decades, on the other side, I have seen many friends and acquaintances—most of them U.S. citizens—emigrating from and immigrating to different places in the United States.  This is very common in this country, of course, especially among professionals, who tend to move all across the land following jobs and developing careers. But we don't say that they are migrant people: they are moving, a lot.

Why is it that I and many very settled people continue being an “immigrant” and not something else?  It may be because language in this country (not only in this country, mind you) is very partial to converting circumstantial adjectives into permanent individual nouns, usually to underline some level of otherness: the African-Americans, the Native-Americans, a Hispanic... In becoming nouns, the adjectives morph from mere qualifiers into alternative definitions that transform these woman and men into something else.

(Sidetracking a bit: In some extreme cases, nouns that became adjectives to qualify people, have morphed into new nouns to underline the otherness.  The one that I found most striking, and one of common use especially among law-enforcement practitioners, is “minority.” The term, in the United States, has landed in different word classes and acquired several meanings. From being a member of a minority (a group), people have become “minority individuals” and then simply “minorities,” as in “we want to hire a minority,” usually referred to a one person of African descent. See below for Webster's entries for this word.)

Whose heritage, anyway?

The month of June has been selected as Immigrant Heritage Month, which is not only fine but a necessary reminder of the role that foreign-born folk have always had in these parts. The annual celebration was started four years ago, possibly as a response to the overall anti-immigrant sentiment that has been developing in the country, especially during this millennium. Basically, immigrants of yesteryear (who want to believe they came to America legally, when there were almost no regulations or vetting) feel that “their” America is being threatened by current immigrants, who face a system that makes nearly impossible to migrate to the U.S.A. through legal means.

If we talk about Immigrant Heritage, this should include most of the people of the United States, with the exception of the descendants of those who were living here before the creation of the nation in 1776, namely: all members of the first nations (a.k.a. Native Americans), the very few Europeans—mostly French and Spanish—who had settled in the Louisiana territory before the 1804  purchase of that land;  the inhabitants of Mexican North America that were incorporated into the nation after the Mexican-American War in 1848; and the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies, who of course were not legal immigrants and had come originally from Africa or from Europe.

What I do like of the month's moniker is that it is Immigrant Heritage Month, and not Immigrant Heritages Month. The United States, all of it, for mostly  good or for occasionally  bad, is of immigrant heritage. Let us celebrate, almost all of us, always mindful of the people we killed or pushed away: this land was their land, from California to the New York Island.

So there, from this Missouri settler.

Domingo Martínez Castilla

Webster shows the evolution of the word minority in the proper order:
2 b) the smaller in number of two groups constituting a larger entity
3 b) group differing from the predominant section of a larger group in one or more characteristics (as ethnic background, language, culture, or religion) and as a result often subjected to differential treatment and especially discrimination
Of, relating to, or being a minority
Finally, another noun:
A member of a minority group

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