If economics do not offer great reasons to halt immigration, what about culture? Consider Los Angeles. No city has felt the impact of immigration more. Almost four out of every ten new immigrants went to California during the 1980s, and the largest share of these ended up in Southern California. They have transformed the region. In 1970, 4.7 percent of the American population was foreign-born. Today at least 8 percent is. In L.A., the proportion is about one-third.

As every traveler knows who has landed at the airport and set out for Disneyland in a rental car, L.A. on a map is a mosaic of pink, yellow, tan, and blue blobs strung together by a web of freeways. Today, those colored shapes represent not merely civic boundaries, but ethnic enclaves. L.A. is no longer the creamy city of the Beach Boys and endless identical suburbs. The texture is grittier, lumpy even.

While working on this article I set out in my rental car one morning from the posh, Anglo city of La Canada, crossing into Latino and African-American northwest Pasadena. Driving east across Lake Avenue, I entered an Armenian zone, then turned south to reenter another Anglo area. I passed through Monterey Park, a majority Asian (mostly Chinese) city, then into solidly Latino neighborhoods in Montebello. Each community I drove through has its own grocery stores (these are not mere corner grocery stores, but ethnic supermarkets), its own newspapers, its own politics.

You have a choice of how to read this polyglot experience. You can cruise the roadways watching the signs change from Chinese to English to Spanish to Hindi and think you are on a toy-sized global holiday, a Disneyland-esque "Small World." Or, you can think of Beirut. Is this, as some charge, a new tribalism? Are immigrants "threatening to dissolve the bonds of common nationhood … bringing forward the danger of a Balkanized America," as John O'Sullivan wrote in National Review last year?

Certainly there are many tribes. L.A. Roman Catholics say mass in 60 languages. That is to say, 60 different ethnic church communities are large enough for church authorities to schedule a service and (often) to import a priest who speaks their language. Actually, the archdiocese counts 99 ethnic groups; many make do with the same language.

It is not just the Roman church, of course; open the yellow pages under "Churches" and it seems that half the Protestant services advertised are in some other language: Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Armenian, Korean. Other religions are represented, too: Jim Stephens of the Sonrise Center for Buddhist Studies gives a bus tour of Buddhist L.A. that features 15 stops.

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Talk to these immigrants and you soon realize they do not have stars in their eyes when they hear "America the Beautiful." Modern immigrants do not come to America to shed their culture and proudly become American. Just the opposite: they almost invariably are desperately trying to hold on to their language and culture.

Take the Korean-American community. It is in many ways a "model minority" (though many Asians despise the label), aggressively upwardly mobile both economically and educationally. Chong Kim of the Korean Center for World Mission told me that every Korean in Los Angeles knows exactly where to find the best schools; they will live only in those communities.

Yet Korean immigrants remain intensely attached to their homeland. In their minds, "Americanizing" is synonymous with decadence, disrespect across generations, bad behavior.

The majority of Korean Americans belong to Korean churches, which are the rallying point for the Korean community. "The Korean church's primary goal is to preserve Korean culture," Young Lee Hertig of Fuller Theological Seminary told me, "which angers the second generation." Other Korean-Americans see preserving cultural identity as a secondary result, since the church is a natural gathering place for fellow ethnic Koreans. But all agree that the church has become closely tied to the preservation of Korean culture. Older Korean pastors often return to Korea, "or if not, they dream of it."

Korean immigrants are fiercely determined to keep their children Korean, yet they fail, invariably. Korean-Americans are following the same three-generation path that European minorities followed a hundred years ago. The first generation is preoccupied with their home culture, speaking its language in their churches, proudly asserting their ethnic heritage at home, protecting their children from American decadence, and often dreaming of return to their native land. The second generation, the immigrants' children, are in between—bilingual and bicultural. The third generation often knows very little of their grandparents' language and culture; they are fully Americanized (though they often become extremely interested in their roots). Between the generations there is heartache—grave disappointment from the elders, frustration and rebellion from the youth. Korean-American Christians speak of the "silent exodus" of young people from their churches. They want to stop it, but often their attempts to provide English services fall short.

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Indians are another example. I was told that most Indian immigrants send back to India to find wives for their sons. Even an Indian-American girl would be insufficiently orthodox to preserve a truly Indian home. "There are a lot of good things in Indian culture we must keep," Premkumar Dharmaraj told me. "There are a lot of bad things in American culture we must protect our children from."

Most evidence suggests new immigrants are assimilating American culture as quickly as, if not more quickly than, earlier generations. And why not? tv, movies, and music are a powerful force for assimilation. Economic realities push immigrants to acquire English more quickly. "The three-generation shift to English may shrink to two generations by 2000," write Philip Martin and Elizabeth Midgly. A recent survey found that "most Mexican-born U.S. residents spoke Spanish at home, but almost two-thirds of all U.S.-born persons of Mexican ancestry used English at home." Although the adoption of bilingual education in some schools has aroused fears that America might become, like Canada, a bilingual nation, immigrants themselves frankly value the acquisition of English. "A survey of U.S. residents of Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican origins recorded over 90 percent agreeing that 'all U.S. citizens and residents should learn English.' "

Yes, there are large sections of L.A. where Spanish, Korean, Armenian, or Chinese is the dominant language, but that is to be expected when tens of thousands of new immigrants come into a city each year. The children of these immigrants will speak English, quite certainly. They will intermarry with other Americans. Nearly half of California's native-born Asians and Hispanics marry into other ethnic groups, according to Ron K. Unz—a rate far higher than that of Jews, Italians, and Poles as recently as the 1950s. Overall, intermarriages are occurring in America at three times the rate of 20 years ago.

In the meantime, ethnic enclaves profoundly affect the city's culture. Critics of immigration ask, can American society digest such a huge amount of differentness?

There is also the question of what culture immigrants absorb once they get here. The welfare state, some claim, has completely altered the process of assimilation. For example, immigrants qualify for affirmative-action preferences. A Nigerian with no experience of American racial prejudice may, oddly enough, receive special consideration under programs instituted to compensate for American racial prejudice. In the America of today, will immigrants still learn lessons of democratic participation? Or will they assimilate the value of victimization and of ethnic balkanization?

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These are good questions, but they say more about our anxiety over America than about our problems with immigration. As Unz writes, "A country in which 22 percent of white children and 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock need not look to immigrants as the source of social breakdown."

Americans are anxious and angry about many social trends. Few if any of these are caused by immigrants. Immigrants are not particularly prone to commit crimes in the streets, and they certainly do not select the programs for Fox Broadcasting. They add to the burden of the public schools (in California public schools, one of six students was born outside the U.S., and one in three speaks a language other than English at home), but schools would be troubled with or without them. When you get down to details, it is hard to build a case that immigrants are a major cause of social upheaval in the U.S. On the contrary, their hard work and family values represent what many people think we have lost.

It is worth remembering, too, that earlier immigrants seemed just as foreign and threatening. Italians and Irish seem like model Americans today, but when their immigration was at its peak, they seemed extraordinarily alien to Americans—poorer than even blacks in the age of Jim Crow, illiterate and allergic to schooling, lacking any democratic traditions, and Catholic. To many Protestants, they were soldiers of the pope, an antichrist insidiously plotting the overthrow of Protestant America.

And while today the vast contributions of Jewish culture to America seem obvious, at the turn of the century nothing seemed more alien than the men in black with their earlocks and huge hats, arguing loudly over the Torah.


The Church on Brady is a medium-sized Southern Baptist church in a scuffling, blue-collar, mostly Hispanic suburban neighborhood of east Los Angeles. The small wooden houses around it were built in L.A.'s post-WWII housing boom, when Southern California was the promised land for many young veterans. They came from Oklahoma and Ohio and Texas, and they planted a California version of their culture wherever they came. Today the neighborhood is a promised land for a different kind of traveler, those newly arrived from Mexico or Central America.

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For the last 25 years, Tom Wolf has been pastor of the Church on Brady. He is a large, genial man who came to the church when it was thinking of closing its doors. He has steered the church from a traditional white Southern Baptist identity to a multi-ethnic character—primarily Hispanic, with significant Anglo and Asian minorities. Wolf calls it a "global local church," and one proof is that 23 missionaries currently overseas have come from the church. On a January morning, I sat in the church library—a surprisingly robust collection of books—with him, Erwin McManus, the Salvadoran who has come as senior pastor, and Elaine Fudenna, an Asian woman who heads a job-placement program in the church. They talked about the church and about immigration.

McManus, himself an immigrant, has no doubt that immigration must be regulated. As a pastor, however, he looks at the issue differently. "I'm glad people are coming here, because then they have a higher chance of knowing who Jesus Christ is. I'm glad that people are flooding here from all over the world, because it means we have the greatest possibility to have the gospel return to the ends of the earth. I'm glad immigrants are tremendously open to the gospel. I'm glad they have needs. I'm glad we can help them. To me, we live in a kairos moment, where God has brought the world to us, and our response is to open our hearts and bring the gospel to them. I'm not going to push for the border to be closed. I'm going to push for us to give food to the hungry and clothes to the naked and shelter to the homeless and have the gospel preached to the poor.

"We started a church [in Texas], and almost everybody coming in was an illegal. Somebody said to me, 'You can't grow a church on illegals.' I said my goal isn't necessarily to grow the church, my goal is to expand the kingdom of God. Everybody who came to Christ, we started teaching them how to start a church, because, we figured, in six months you're going to get deported, and so, well, good, the government will send out our missionaries.

"Taking a political position is fine, but don't let it become the point on your arrow. The primary purpose for you still is that the gospel of Jesus Christ be proclaimed."

Q.: Suppose you had a postage-stamp piece of land on which you lived a middle-class existence, while all around you were alien multitudes who continually wanted to come and share life on your piece of land. What would you call such a place?

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A.: A successful mission station.

Consider Grace Community Church, a large, well-known, evangelical church in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. According to Jim Stephens, a converted Buddhist and a member of the church, it is surrounded by the largest Thai community in the United States. Most of these people practice Buddhism. The Wat Thai Buddhist temple is just down the street. The Thai have not come seeking Christ; they are probably not even aware that they have inadvertently surrounded a church. Can this be anything but a remarkable opportunity for mission?

Similar opportunities are everywhere in Southern California. Sizable Iranian and Japanese populations are found in Beverly Hills. In Carson are many Samoans. Indians cluster in Artesia. Vietnamese abound in Westminster. In general, compared to Africa or the Americas, Asia has been resistant to Christianity. How interesting, then, that Asian immigration to the United States has grown so rapidly in the last 30 years.


Ken Fong, a pastor of the Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead, California, describes a conversation with one of his seminary professors. The professor had said in his lecture that the ethnic church is an abomination. We should all go to one church, he said. Fong approached him at the break.

"So," Fong said, "if we should all go to one church, why don't you come to mine?"

"But yours is an ethnic church," the professor replied.

"Then what church are we talking about?" Fong said.

His point was, of course, that all churches are ethnic. From the inside it does not necessarily seem so, particularly if you are from the majority culture. But to some others, your church is culturally alien. You are culturally alien.

Ethnic diversity appears, by the light of the Book of Revelation, to be eternal. At the final consummation of history, it is announced that God will live with men, and "they will be his peoples" (Rev. 21:3). The Greek is plural. Later it is said that the nations will walk by the light of the Lamb (21:24). People from all nations, however, will be united in worship before the throne of God, a great multitude "from every nation, tribe, people and language" (7:9). This will be the great and final immigration.

If the church is meant to anticipate that final worship service, American Protestants have not done terribly well so far. Aliens have been received antagonistically: the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and the Jews, to say nothing of the Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and Indians.

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Now we have been given another chance. After a long hiatus, the peoples of the world are coming to us again. Perhaps there is less prejudice now, but as current political discussions indicate, immigration still provokes fear. For Christians, it should provoke love. We are certainly loyal to America, which implies feeling pride in our culture. Our higher loyalty is to the kingdom of God, however, which moves disinterestedly across national borders. Imagine, if you can, the apostle Paul writing on the subject of immigration. "There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!" (Col. 3:11, nrsv). We should search the faces across the wall for those of our brothers and sisters.


Last fall I coached an under-10 boys soccer team. Our local soccer league has a program to enroll underprivileged kids, and about half of my team came from immigrant families, Eritreans and Cambodians, in particular. I had my best season ever as a coach, and not because, as some might suspect, the immigrant kids were ahead of the Anglo kids in soccer skills. Actually, they weren't. But they did have qualities that are not always common among Americans: endless enthusiasm and responsiveness to authority. Given that, and given my adequate skills as a coach, we managed to have one of the better teams in the league. (We finished third. The first- and second-place teams were the other two immigrant teams.) We also had a wonderful time.

I take that as a metaphor for immigration. Immigrants bring the richness of their culture; they bring hard work and personal discipline. Citizens can contribute a welcome, an orientation to American society, an invitation to participate on equal terms. (The immigrant kids would never have played soccer if we had not chipped in for equipment and fees, as well as made sure they had transportation to games and practices.) Immigration is a meeting ground.

There is some truth to the postage-stamp-surrounded-by-poverty image of immigration. The world outside our borders is unthinkably large, and we are by comparison unthinkably rich. But I think there is more truth to immigration seen as a soccer game, with new kids invited to play. Of course there is some limit to how many kids we can take on. Of course we don't want to strain the system to the breaking point. As long as people are so eager to play our game, however, my bias would be toward finding ways to let them, as many as we can.

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Driving around L.A., visiting people in all areas, talking to pastors and church leaders of ethnic churches, I never once got a sense of a city about to collapse in chaos. What I felt was a place jingling with change, a pulsating, challenging environment. Yes, there is stress, but there is also excitement.

I like what Jacob Neusner wrote: "When we lose faith in the power of this country and its unique social system to take the foreigner and make the stranger one of us—in our image, after our likeness—and make ourselves over too, we shall deny the power that has made us unique among other nations."

Let's face it, most of the chaos America's children face has nothing to do with immigrants; it has to do with the old stock. It has to do with the breakdown of families and the degradation of the media and the loss of moral authority. Faced with such challenges—and they affect even a soccer coach—I still think my immigrant players will contribute more than they require. So I am happy to say to them, "Welcome."

That is how I see it as a soccer coach, and a citizen of America. But as a Christian, the case seems even clearer. Immigrants are coming, in whatever numbers the govern-ment deems appropriate. Some may think they threaten culture, schools, economic status. But I don't think so. They do not, in any case, threaten my life in Jesus. In fact, we need to recognize them for what they are: people in God's image, representing practically "every tongue and tribe." Tom Wolf calls immigration "the invasion of the eschaton." It represents missionary movement in reverse, the world come to my doorstep. In a way, immigrants are the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, that through him "all nations will be blessed." And who can not say "welcome" to that?


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