One of the things I have found reassuringly familiar as I move back to New England after an absence of nearly 20 years is the Red Sox baseball team, still battling for the top of the American League's East division.
It's just the players who are different.
The hottest Boston hitter at the moment has been Jose Iglesias, a 23-year-old infielder whose batting average, at this writing, stands at .409. He was born in Cuba and defected while visiting Canada as a member of the Cuban junior national team.
The team's closing relief pitcher is Koji Uehara, who had three saves on three straight nights last week and is being described as "the new hero of Boston." He was born in Japan and communicates through a translator.
And its pillar is David Ortiz, who was with the Red Sox through its Word Series wins in both 2004 and 2007 and who has, at this writing, 417 career home runs. He was born in the Dominican Republic.
In Red Sox Nation, as the area from Maine to Connecticut and beyond where the team's fans live is known, one doesn't hear a lot of whining or grumbling — one doesn't hear any whining or grumbling at all, really — about how the Cuban-born Iglesias, the Japan-born Uehara, or the Dominican Republic-born Ortiz are depriving worthy and unemployed American-born baseball players of a livelihood. Instead, fans are glad the Red Sox are winning, and excited to see baseball played at a level of world-class excellence.
Perhaps this year, as in too many previous years, the Red Sox will collapse after the All-Star break, or in September. But for those following the congressional debate about immigration reform, the Red Sox recent run of success could not be better timed. What better example is there of the way that immigration strengthens America by bringing the world's best talent here? The Red Sox roster is as American as motherhood, apple pie, baseball, or immigration itself. And it was a Massachusetts senator, John Kennedy, after all, who once wrote a book about America titled A Nation of Immigrants.
Sure, there will be those who will argue that three foreign-born Red Sox stars are hardly sufficient to settle the immigration policy debate. The issue, they will say, are hordes of unskilled and illegal Mexicans, or terror-bent Islamists, not legal-immigrant athletes with multi-million-dollar contracts. Or they will argue that the Red Sox players arrived under the current law, so there is no need to revise that law. Or they will say that even if one supports immigration reform, the bill approved last week by the Senate — a mere summary of it by one immigration lawyer runs to 119 pages — is an overly complex monstrosity designed to provide lots of work for immigration lawyers and Homeland Security bureaucrats, but little relief to either employers or individual immigrants.
One can acknowledge these points without conceding the central fact of the immigration debate, which is that immigration makes America better, just like it has made the Red Sox better.
If one looks at the history of America's great cities, one finds immigrant presences far greater than those of today. New York from 1850 to 1920 went not a decennial census with a foreign-born population of less than 35 percent. San Francisco from 1860 to 1910 had a foreign-born population at each census of 34 percent or higher. From 1850 to 1920, Boston had a foreign-born population at each census of 31 percent or higher. The decline of these cities in the 1970s came with the decline in immigrants — the 1970 census found the foreign born population in Boston at 13.1 percent, in New York at 18.2 percent, and in San Francisco at 21.6 percent, all levels below the years when those cities were growing and flourishing.
Each wave of immigrants in the past was met with the same claims of inferiority that the Hispanics are being met with now. The German Jewish immigrants worried that the Eastern European Jewish immigrants were too clannish and wouldn't integrate. The Northern European immigrants looked down at the Southern European immigrants, and the Southern European immigrants looked down at the Chinese. Each wave worried that the next wave wouldn't learn English fast enough.
Senator Rubio, who voted for the Senate bill he helped to craft, said in explaining it, "sometimes, we focus so much on how immigrants could change America, that we forget that America changes immigrants even more."
So as the Mayflower descendants and offspring of Irish immigrants fill Fenway Park to cheer on Iglesias, Uehara, and Ortiz, we can look forward to a day when the children and grandchildren of Iglesias, Uehara, and Ortiz fill the same ballpark to cheer on immigrant players from some other land. Or perhaps to a day when the Mexican Americans themselves start worrying that the latest wave of arrivals — from Africa, or from who knows where — won't measure up to standards. It's the American way.