By Mary Sanchez

I am, generally speaking, an admirer of all things French. My father was a chef specializing in French cuisine, so I grew up with an appreciation for coq au vin and complicated reduction sauces. I've long fantasized about visiting Paris, the haunts of Josephine Baker and Colette, the haute couture, the rich culture and history.

But my transoceanic lyricism goes flat when I hear about things like France's preposterous plan to fine Muslim women the equivalent of about $185 for wearing a full-face veil in public. In our globalized age, there is no shortage of hostility on the part of native populations for the immigrants among them, but this ban takes the gateau.

What explains this silly law is a familiar pattern of cultural politics akin to what psychologists call displacement. We feel threatened by something, but for one reason or another can't quite admit it, so we transfer those feelings to another, symbolic thing. Certain Arizona legislators get in a lather about "ethnic studies" departments at state universities, but what they are really bothered about is the presence of a lot of ethnic others in their state.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that the burqa ban was a "moral responsibility" to protect the European values. Protect them from whom? In France, an estimated 2,000 women wear the full coverings. But the country has more than 5 million Muslims, the largest numbers of any European state. Again, against whom does this law protect European values?

Let's not just pick on the French here: In 2009, a majority of Swiss voters chose to enact a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets in their country. Not a great way to integrate Muslims into the body politic. Or is that the point?

The burqa ban and similar issues are a means of ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Europe is having serious difficulties integrating minorities, particularly Muslim ones. The French veil ban claims to address a supposed trait of Muslim fundamentalism -- the retrograde and often violent oppression of women -- but does little to actually advance the freedom of Muslim women.

Controversies like this in Europe ought to cause Americans to reflect on how lucky we are with respect to our immigration issues. Like our European cousins, we have in recent decades witnessed one of the largest immigrant influxes in our history. But we benefit from two advantages. First, the best and the brightest from around the world -- be they Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or what have you -- come to our country to share in its opportunities and thereby adopt our national outlook. Lured by what America offers them, it is relatively easy for these folks to become American.

Secondly, those hordes of poor immigrants who come, often illegally, are typically from Latin America and already share a religious faith with the majority of Americans -- and that's a powerful means of integration that shouldn't be underestimated.

Of course, Americans should be concerned about illegal immigration, not least with respect to its costs and its deleterious effects on the rule of law. But to approach the issue out fear and emotion, rather from the standpoint of realism, means there is little room for conversations about the most important tasks: integrating our immigrants and encouraging "American" values among them.

We need to have "grown up" talk about migration, integration and population, says Margie McHugh, co-director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute. "Part of the resistance and why we can't think straight is because we are not confident about our ability to integrate all of these people. And anger is not a helpful response."

About 40 million people in the U.S. are foreign-born, and the vast majority of them are here legally. The heavy emphasis on illegal immigration in American politics is a distraction from reality. Times change, as do the languages and customs of the newest arrivals, but the need and desirability of settling and integrating immigrants do not. It's about time the U.S. wakes up to its own situation -- and, compared to other countries, it's actually not that bad.

As for the French, we'll leave them to their devices.


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World - France Offers Lesson in How Not to Integrate Immigrants | Global Viewpoint