About sixty-five years ago, a man and his wife left their native Italy to live in America. He did all that was required to become a United States citizen. On the day that he was officially registered as an American citizen, three Italian American families, including mine, gathered to greet and congratulate him at my home. Some balloons, an American flag, and lots of food marked the significance of the event.
The celebration was designed to be a surprise party. So, my uncle was given an obligatory pretext for visiting my home. I served as lookout to insure a surprise. When I spotted him walking down the block toward my home, I warned the guests that he was about to arrive. They gathered close to the door.
There followed that anticipatory dynamic of surprise parties: the urgent flicking off of lights, the hushed silence broken only by intermittent one-line jokes and laughter, smothered by pleas for a return to silence.
Peeking through a window curtain, I saw him climb the outdoor steps. My final act as lookout was a grand gesture for silence and a hoarse whisper: “He’s here!” Total silence, except for the ringing of our doorbell. I opened the door. The guests spontaneously greeted my uncle John with applause and cheers. His wife broke from the crowd to hug him. As she approached him, he said, “Hello, alien!” Laughter and tears of joy followed.
That simple incident was my first and lasting impression of civil life in America. Uncle John’s good-natured humor about citizenry came roaring back to me when I recently heard that there is strong objection to the term, ‘illegal alien.’ Objectors argue that the term is racist. When I was a teenager, uncle John was referred to as an ‘alien,’ not an illegal alien. The term certainly did not imply who John was, but rather where he was, i.e., in a country of which he was not a citizen.
Given today’s general lack of concern for precise language, it is interesting to note that political partisans selectively take issue with the precise meaning of words. I suggest, that if we are to be precise about words and their implications, we need to drop our political prejudices. The increasing coalescence of ethnicity and political affiliations is an American tragedy. The ethnic prejudices of backward American citizens and aliens alike have always been profoundly un-American, whether practiced by flag wavers or flag burners. But current politics is polluted by a noxious atmosphere of class-consciousness unparalleled in my lifetime in America. I am not commenting on the many issues that are associated with immigration itself, and I am certainly saddened by the suffering of all good people on both sides of the law. However, a euphemism for ‘illegal alien’ would do nothing to resolve a disturbing demographic and polarizing issue.
I don’t know how my uncle voted after he became a citizen. I don’t even care. Uncle John left Fascist Italy and came to this country because it was classless in ways that matter. Sadly, he would be shocked to hear the slogan, “99% and 1%,” a deadly, false, and un-American cliché.