[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: Miami: America or Third World?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Miami: America or Third World?

I was really hoping to not have to hear again from Tom Tancredo and his Miami Third-World bashing, but there he was in yesterday's Herald, spouting off his reasons as to why Miami isn't part of America. Fortunately, his editorial was part of a Pro-Con feature with an opposing view from FIU's Dario Moreno, someone who knows plenty about our community and our politics.

I thought that instead of posting each person's column separately, I would put them together in a sort of simulated debate between Tancredo and Moreno. In other words, take parts of each column and piece them together in debate style. I also thought I would throw my two cents worth into the conversation (surprise, surprise!). Yes, it's two-against-one, but I can't think of anyone better than Tancredo to be in the minority in a debate about Miami and its attributes.

Here we go.

Tancredo: Although I believe I have made more controversial statements in my political life, I don't recall any that sparked more interest and response than my reference to Miami as a ''Third World country.'' Interestingly, most of the response -- especially from Floridians -- has been quite positive. Even the polls I have seen from the area indicate I have said something most people believe to be true, but few politicians or media outlets are willing to utter.

Forbes magazine reports that in the five years since 2002, a net of 151,000 Miami residents, most of them middle class, have left Miami, and 238,000 new residents have arrived from other nations, mostly Central and South America. Miami-Dade County now has a foreign-born population of 51.4 percent, the highest in the country for a large city.

Moreno: Miami is not foreign. It is, fundamentally, part of the American experience. As President John F. Kennedy put it, ''We are a nation of immigrants.'' Each wave of immigrants instills unique values and experiences within a larger national mosaic that is essentially the backbone to the idea ``that all Men are created equally.''

Robert: Exactly what polls are you referring to, Mr. Tancredo? I'm not surprised so many Floridians agree with you. After all, many left Miami for the same xenophobic reasons you state, "too many foreigners". By the way, a good portion of those 200,000-plus new residents from Latin America are highly-educated people who easily fit into the middle and upper classes here.

T: "When any area of the country experiences a massive influx of both legal and illegal immigrants, as Miami has in a relatively short time, there are societal ramifications. Some are positive; some are not. Among the latter are dramatic increases in crime and corruption.

Florida taxpayers had to fork over $120 million in 2004 alone to pay for the cost of incarcerating criminal aliens.

In 2003, violent crimes in Miami were 3.14 times the national rate and triple the rate of some larger cities like Denver.

The murder rate in Miami in 2003 was 2.53 times the national rate and double the rate of another large city in the region, Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Justice called South Florida the ''public corruption capital of the nation.'' In the 10-year period 1996-2005, 576 individuals were prosecuted on public corruption charges in South Florida.

There has always been some corruption in every large city, but the difference is that in a Third World country, corruption is a way of life. It is a routine way of doing business. In America by contrast, when payoffs and kickbacks are uncovered it is a scandal and someone is thrown out of office. Is corruption becoming a way of life in Miami?

M: Your description of Miami as a ''Third World country'' is a crude stereotype. I understand your frustration with Miami's lively political and social atmosphere. After all, I did call the city a ''banana republic'' on national television following the fraudulent 1997 Miami mayoral election. But both characterizations of Miami are wrong and simple-minded. Miami is not a ''Third World country'' or a ''banana republic'' but instead a developing urban center with all the opportunities and problems associated with urban America.

Cities in the United States have always attracted new Americans -- immigrants who help build and populate them. In doing so, immigrants not only transform the city but their own culture and customs. This process of dual-assimilation is rarely neat. The histories of Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are personified by conflict between new Americans and the cities' established residents.

Immigrants carry with them the culture, politics and values of their homeland, which often conflict with the norms of their adopted homes. This tension between new immigrants and the establishment creates a framework for a political synthesis that is unique to those cities.

R: Are you saying, Mr. Tancredo, that Miami has a relatively high crime rate because of immigrants? If that's indeed the case, then what do you make of cities such as Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, even Florida cities such as Orlando and Tampa (I love how you cherry-picked Charlotte as your comparison city, BTW) which have similar if not higher crime rates? Is mass immigration to blame in those cities, too, or is there something - or someone - else in play?

Yes, corruption is a problem here. However, Mr. Tancredo, you've surely heard of the history of the cities Mr. Moreno mentioned. Also, much of the corruption in Miami has been perpetrated by non-immigrants. We're an equal-opportunity "corruptor" (sic). And, yes, stories of corruption in Miami are typically met with feature stories in the local media and wide indignation from our residents (i.e. the latest low-income housing scandal). It is NOT accepted here as a part of what life should be like.

Mr. Moreno, I remember your "Banana Republic" remark back in 1997. I forgive you for saying it.

T: Far greater than the price we pay for crime and corruption is the cost to the culture when so many people who call Miami home have chosen not to assimilate. That the current mayor of Miami, Manny Diaz, was once the director of an organization that explicitly rejects the melting pot concept of assimilation is disconcerting, as is the statement of a local university professor who told Time magazine he loves Miami because ``there is no pressure to be an American.''

It is widely accepted that life can be lived quite easily in Miami as a monolingual Spanish speaker. This phenomenon indicates a disturbing trend on the part of immigrants who seem to have lost, or never had, the desire to fully assimilate. It is exacerbated by the official acceptance of this attitude on the part of community leaders who pride themselves on their ''celebration of diversity,'' as Gov. Jeb Bush put it in his letter of admonishment to me. As I told him in my response, celebrating diversity is admirable; making it into a state-sponsored religion is catastrophic.

If you want to see a nation that has a 200-year experience with bilingualism and its consequences, look at our neighbor to the north, Canada. I do not think we want to follow that path and experience those consequences.

My concerns about bilingualism have nothing whatever to do with race, but it does have something to do with our ability to reason together about the future of our communities. The eminent sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset warned that, ''The histories of bilingual and bicultural societies that do not assimilate are histories of turmoil, tension and tragedy.'' He is right. America is fast approaching the crossroads where we must choose greater assimilation -- or greater fragmentation.

M: Dual-assimilation is as American as apple pie, or better said, as pizza pie, corned beef and cabbage, and hot dogs. As a new city, Miami is at the forefront of this process. This is exactly what makes Miami exciting and a place where politics is, more often than not, passionate and heartfelt. Miami as a developing urban area attracts new Americans from all over the world. Miami is no longer the destination for Cuban exiles alone but is increasingly attracting people from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, France and Germany.

Historically, each wave of new immigrants is greeted with suspicion and skepticism about whether they were authentic Americans. In the 19th Century Irish-Catholics were suspect because of their religion. Immigrants from southern Europe were viewed as incapable of adopting democratic values because of the long history of absolutism in their homeland. Jewish immigrants from Russia and Germany were similarly rejected because they were not Christians. Thus, it is not surprising that some, like Tancredo, are skeptical of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants and their ability to assimilate.

The historic record shows that his concerns are baseless. Each wave of American immigrants has shown a remarkable capacity to accept and embrace the essence of the American experience. John Adams said it best when discussing the qualifications to be an American. He argued that there were only two, ''That you are people, and that you are here.'' The wisdom of Adams' remarks resonates within each wave of new Americans.

R: Studies have shown that Hispanics are assimilating at similar rates to 19th and early 20th century immigrants. Many second and third-generation Hispanics in Miami are losing the ability to properly communicate in Spanish, and this has created a lack of local professionals who can properly communicate in English AND Spanish. This has forced many local companies to go to Latin American to recruit new employees. I see this as a huge and glaring negative, as I am an advocate of bilingualism (meaning fluency in BOTH English and Spanish, not one over the other). However, this is part of the natural cycle of assimilation which has been repeated throughout history. The comparisons to Canada regarding bilingualism are easy to make at the surface, but flawed once you sit down and think about it. Canada's issues with Quebec go way back and are rooted in the history of French Quebec compared to the rest of Anglo Canada, not a result of recent immigrants demanding to secede from Canada.

Now for the closing remarks:

T: If immigrants are permitted to continue to form their own independent cultural, political and linguistic enclaves -- and if we fail to instill in new arrivals the language, culture and values that bind America together as a nation -- we will soon cease to have a nation. At best, we will be little more than an economy. And at worst, the ''melting pot'' will have been replaced with a "pressure cooker.''

I mentioned earlier that our office has been deluged with responses to my comment. It has also been interesting to us that a large number of the supportive calls, e-mails and letters we have received are from folks with Hispanic surnames. These communications are encouraging because they give me hope that the battle for assimilation and the melting pot is not lost.

I am well aware of the fact that there are those on both sides of this debate who are motivated by the ugliest of emotions. Believe me, I hear from them also. But for the voices of bigotry and hate to lose volume, the voices of those who hope to see a truly integrated society have to be heard.

M: Miami, despite its shortcomings, reflects the strength and attractiveness of the American Idea. New immigrants are compelled to learn and speak English; they participate in elections in greater numbers than native-born Americans; they believe fervently in and are willing to defend the American free enterprise system; and they are willing to die for their adopted homeland.

The Miami experience is not unique as Tancredo contends. It is following the trajectory of other great American cities -- a process that is often spewed with conflict. But the story of urban America and its ethnic populations is a legitimate part of our national experience. Miami and its ethnically diverse population is as authentically American as the ranchers and farmers that make up the sixth district of Colorado.

R: Mr. Tancredo, your fear of a nation divided along linguistic and cultural lines is rooted in lack of knowledge and sensitivity to immigrants' struggles. Even in Miami, it is widely accepted that a lack of proper English-speaking skills gives you a much smaller chance to become successful. Can it be done without speaking any English? Yes, but the odds are stacked against you. I am a product of immigrants, people who left behind everything to start a new life in this country. I am proud that I can communicate and interact in two cultures, yet feel 100% American at the same time. Is that what you want to take away from us? Do you want us to forget where we came from? Do you realize how hard it is for newly-arrived immigrants to learn English while working multiple jobs?

Mr. Tancredo, next time your in Miami, take a look around town. Notice all of the local businesses created and run by immigrants. Notice all of the doctors, lawyers, architects, politicians, etc., who are either immigrants or sons of immigrants. Visit with those Hispanic immigrants who have proudly served their adopted country. They are part of the Americans success story which continues to repeat itself despite the origin of its inhabitants.

Mr. Tancredo, open your eyes. Open your mind. Welcome to Miami, the new America.

Same as the old America. Thank God for that.

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Blogger La Ventanita said...

Robert, I don't know if Miami would qualify as a TWC or not, we would need to get some statistics to calculate the index. I do know that even if Miami were a TWC, it wouldn't be the only city in the USA to qualify.

Now, having lived in Miami 8 years, having a husband that came from a TWC and lived in Miami for 4 I can honestly tell you you can even hold a professional job in Miami without knowing any English. My husband did. He tried to learn English, but heck evereyone spoke Spanish so what was the need?

I don't like Miami, and I've always been open about it. Miami is an enclave, in which as long as new comers keep coming, Spanish and Latin culture (the good and the bad) will rule. My husband used to say that immigrants in Miami brought the good and the bad from our countries, and prostituted the American order. Now that we live in New England he'll argue you to death on it.

I went to Miami over the holidays, and found the same Miami I left - loud, obnoxious, rude, and Hispanic. Am I biased? Yes. I left PR b/c frankly, I didn't agree with the Latin way of doing some things or the Latin pace. Now the US isn't perfect, I know that.

I did find many people, to my surprise, who agreed with Tancredo.

Finally, I think all three of you are right and bring valid points. The problem is you (all three) are looking through different glasses and from different points of view. While Miami has its "good" points it also has a lot of "bad" points that need to be addressed. The language issue, for example, is a shortcoming for all, specially when the parents don't speak English but the kids do.

8:53 AM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

Thanks for the comments LV. Here's my long response.

Honestly and respectfully, I categorically disagree with you on your overall assessment of Miami. Not to say that there aren't loud, rude and obnoxious people here, but IMO it doesn't define all of Miami, nor does Miami magically turn a quiet, orderly person into an asshole (pardon my French). The essence of Miami can't be described only in that sense because there are different facets to the area as I'll describe later.

I've lived here almost my entire life, but have lived outside of Miami long enough to know what it's like elsewhere. I have seen the changes in Miami throughout the years, both subtle and not so subtle. I am a product of this area and I appreciate the opportunities that growing up here have given me, opportunities I would not have gotten elsewhere.

Tancredo's big problem, if you break it down, is that he blames Miami's problems on its large Hispanic population. Plain and simple. He doesn't blame it on real things such as poor planning, large population increase over a very short time, bad politicians from all walks of life, etc. The underlying assumption he makes is that Hispanic culture is inferior to American culture, therefore they have created what Tancredo sees as the nightmare known as Miami.

Having seen what real third-world countries are like, I can't see how Miami (or any U.S. city for that matter) could be categorized as such.

I don't know if you lived here long enough to notice this, but as someone who has lived in different parts of Miami all these years, there are palpable differences between neighborhoods. People like to gloss over Miami as the same thing all over, when in fact there are pretty big differences - even among Hispanic-dominated areas. Contrary to what many people think, Miami isn't just South Beach, Little Havana and Hialeah. It's many different things, as the post on the Redland below perfectly illustrates. Each area has its own pluses and minuses. You just pick the neighborhood that has the pluses you like and the negatives that you can easily deal with.

It's true that in SOME parts of Miami, you can get away without speaking an iota of English and hold a decent professional job. However, this is not the rule everywhere. My wife who was raised in Little Havana and is perfectly bilingual, quickly realized how the established, professional companies and businesses that are rooted in the United States (in other words, don't focus solely on Latin American business), demand English. It makes sense. My job sometimes requires speaking to civic and business groups all over Miami-Dade County, and there is never a lack of English-speaking professionals in any of the groups I speak to...many of these people don't even speak Spanish, to my surprise.
Look at all the successful Cuban-American politicians who have come out of neighborhoods such as Hialeah and Little Havana. The reason they got ahead was because they speak English, not because they speak Spanish just like everyone else in their neighborhood.

It always brings a smile to my face when a monolingual from another part of the country comments on how amazed they are at how so many Miamians can speak in fluent English, then turn around on a dime and speak very good conversational Spanish. This Miami phenomenon gets overlooked all too often, mainly because it's easy to point out those who can only speak one language.

At least you're open in admitting that you don't like some of the "Latin" ways. It's no surprise then that Miami would rub you the wrong way. And, yes, we all have are positive and negative attributes and we transport them wherever we go. I can honestly say that people coming from the opposite direction (New York and New England especially) have brought good and bad as well. Their desire for efficiency is often counteracted by their rude arrogance and refusal to call South Florida home despite the fact that they've lived here 20-30 years. And let's not even talk about their driving skills. Yes, I'm generalizing on purpose to make a point, which is wrong but there's a kernel of truth to it.

In closing...Miami is challenging to those who seek a homogeneous, predictable society. Our mix of cultures and social status are bound to create conflict. That's something that I have accepted for better and for worse. However, I have seen more than enough positive in all my years here to know that the potential here is limitless.

I realize you and many others reading this will shake their heads vehemently in disagreement. That's OK, it just reflects different life experiences and upbringings.

11:34 AM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Jonathan said...

LV wrote:
The language issue, for example, is a shortcoming for all, specially when the parents don't speak English but the kids do.

Hasn't this always been the pattern with all kinds of immigrants? I agree that there would be a problem if the kids didn't speak English. And it's better if the parents learn English too. But if the kids grow up speaking English, is there really a problem? By the third generation the current children will be complaining that their children don't speak Spanish.

12:08 PM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

You're exactly right Jonathan, I pointed that out in the post. The first generation is already complaining about the lack of Spanish spoken by their grandchildren.

My wife and I are doing our best to make sure our daughters learn to speak good Spanish, but it's going to be an uphill battle, even in Miami.

12:21 PM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger La Ventanita said...

you guys didn't get my language comment. My cousins grew up in jersey and their parents learned english b/c they had to go work somewhere. their kids know some spanish. But i see my friends in Miami who don't speak an iota of English with kids that are bilingual. The problem is not for the kids, but for the parents who can be easily excluded of their children's conversation.

And Robert, my husband was a Senior Project Manager at a Telecommunications company. Never even spoke English on the job.

12:54 PM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Rick said...

Personally, I'm just tired of the whole debate. Everyone has their own views on this issue and while it interesting to discuss it the first go around, this time it just seems like rehashing old territory.


1:09 PM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

Perhaps it is an old and tired topic. But if there's one thing bloggers are good at, it's rehashing and repeating themes and topics.

3:27 PM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Lori said...


I don't think it is a Miami thing, both my maternal grandparents passed away without ever learning a bit of English and they lived the rest of their lives in New York.

This is common with immigrants from any foreign language speaking country. The first ones who arrive, most of the time must do without learning the language to be able to provide for and care for their families. The children are the ones who must learn the language.

Also I wouldn't consider it a bad thing if someone with an Italian last name, knew that "latte" meant milk in Italian. I don't understand what is so wrong about fluently speaking as many languages as you can manage.

In Miami, if you have a professional position and you don't deal with the local public, you must speak English. You cannot file a document at court in whatever type of case, in Spanish. You cannot get a state contractor's license in Spanish. You can't get a journeymen's license in Spanish and you can't get a street vendor's permit in Spanish.

Mr. Tacredo has a forked tongue, he wants to create group hysteria over something that has happened throughout generations of immigration. That he is now trying to clean it up and fooling some people at it, just proves his slithering abilities.

3:45 PM, January 15, 2007  
Blogger Adam said...

I don't always agree with everything you write, but in this case I am behind you 100%.

I have seen too many children deprived of their family's language because their parents were afraid that they wouldn't assimilate and forced them to speak only english at home, as well as in their white, english speaking schools and neighborhoods. I think many of these young adults are sad that their parents made this decision, especially in light of the mounds of research that has come out recently indicating that young children can learn many independent languages very easily, with many beneficial side effects in other areas of their lives.

What a shame to say that one of miami's strongest assets (it's multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism) is the thing that makes its crime rate so high and its politicians so corrupt.

I suppose the fact that the city is founded on the illegal drug-importation industry has nothing to do with high crime-rates or corrupt politicians.

4:55 PM, January 15, 2007  

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