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Who's 'American' enough?

In 1990 British Conservative Party grandee Norman Tebbit famously invented the "Cricket Test." Britain was going through one of its periodic bouts of paranoia-cum-soul searching over allowing "hordes" of foreigners to settle on the Scepter'd Isle, and Tebbit, a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, opined that immigrants should demonstrate citizenship worthiness by rooting for the English national cricket side against the Pakistani national side, or the cricketers representing India, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, or the West Indies.

The simplicity (and sport-centeredness) of the Cricket Test for loyalty would surely appeal to many here in the States: You are either with the U.S. baseball team when they play the Dominican Republic, or you're against us. You're either with the Williams sisters when they play Martina Hingis at Wimbledon, or you don't deserve the protections and privileges of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, national identity is more complex than that, which is one reason why what cable news calls "America's immigration crisis" is so anxiety-producing.

A hundred years ago, the tiny island that ruled a quarter of the world presented itself as "home," the Mother Country: the source of moral rectitude, good government and a whole lot of money. Kids took up cricket bats in Rajasthan, Durban, Tasmania and Kingston. Now the world's sole superpower presents itself not as anyone's "Mother Country" but as everyone's favorite country - the source of moral rectitude, good government, and a whole lot of money. Kids take up iPods, listening to Black Eyed Peas in the Kabul Haagen-Dazs, the Tel Aviv Starbucks or the Ciudad Juarez McDonald's. Some sections of the global village hate our guts; others keep trying to sneak across the border, sometimes walking a hundred miles across a snake-infested desert so they can live among us. It's no wonder we can't decide exactly what being "American" means, even as we do our best to bring democracy, the rule of law and Tom Cruise movies to the furthest reaches of the planet.

But why are we so upset? What's the worst these Mexicans (we might as well stipulate that most of the immigrants are from below the Rio Grande) can do to us? Take all those fabulous jobs scrubbing bathrooms at the local Motel Six or picking tomatoes in Gadsden County? Politicians such as Colorado's Tom Tancredo, pundits such as CNN's Lou Dobbs, and vigilante wanna-bes such as the Minutemen, whipping the nation into a frenzy, reveal that our national sense of self is fragile. "Americanness" is hardly a matter of having been born on the right side of a treaty-defined map line. Is it what holidays you celebrate (Eid? Cinco de Mayo? After-Thanksgiving Sales?), what flag you wave at a demonstration, or in what language you sing The Star Spangled Banner?

Irony is not normally thought to be an American characteristic, which is a pity because so much about our national hissy fit over immigration is rich in ironic pleasures. We accuse wavers of the Mexican flag and speakers of Spanish of not being sufficiently "American." Yet many Mexican immigrants are the most "American" Americans - they are descended from the aboriginal peoples who have lived on this continent for more than 10,000 years. And, unless you count the Old Norse the odd Viking who made it to these shores 1,000 years ago would have used to express himself, Spanish was the first European language spoken on the continent of North America. For 300 years, Florida was essentially a colony of Cuba. We holler "Remember the Alamo!" But we forget that fight was between a bunch of insurgents named Crockett, Bowie and Austin (actually Mexican citizens at the time), plus a gang of illegal immigrants from the United States, trying to take over part of the sovereign nation of Mexico - they wanted it to conform to the American Way of Life, or at least the American system of slavery.

Mexicans are poor and want to better themselves, so they head north: Poverty is why most of our ancestors left their countries and ended up at places like Ellis Island where, until the 1920s, there were no visas, no green cards, no papers given at the embassy. If the United States could do something to help the Mexican economy, maybe we would have fewer people trying to jump the fence. We need to understand - as the British are having to - that years of benefiting from Mexico's low wages might have consequences. And that national identity is endlessly mutable.

Diane Roberts is the author of Dream State, a book about Florida.

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