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Anti-immigrant posting riles immigrants

Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island

Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, calls on the Suffolk County Police Department to have more translators, during a newws conference outside the Third Precinct in Bay Shore. (Sept. 21, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

A group of activists got a surprise at the Third Precinct in Bay Shore after last week's news conference demanding better Latino-police relations: An anti-immigrant posting on a station house wall.

The posting came under the heading "Are We SLOW LEARNERS or What?" It selectively characterized Theodore Roosevelt's views on immigration, which stressed assimilation. It read, in part: "Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag . . . we have room for but one language."

The group took a photo. "It is offensive," Luis Valenzuela, head of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, said last week, "because it sends a very clear message that immigrants are not welcome here."

The posting was torn down by Inspector Jan Rios, the precinct's commanding officer, when the group complained. But one activist said she had seen it hanging there since December.

This is not the message of inclusion that Suffolk -- under ongoing scrutiny by a U.S. Justice Department investigation into allegations of discriminatory policing -- wants in a station house.

Monday, Deputy Chief of Patrol Christopher Bergold called the posting "an unauthorized document" that went up in the station's public area. He said he did not know how long it had been there.

"It does not reflect the sentiment, policy or procedures of our department," Bergold said. The department serves residents regardless of "what language they speak and [their] immigration status."

The posting, similar to a message making the rounds on the Internet, states, incorrectly, that Roosevelt made the comments about English and the flag in a 1907 speech.

Roosevelt actually included the words in a letter he sent to the American Defense Society in 1919, days before he died.

According to David Godshalk, an expert on Roosevelt, race and immigration who teaches history at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Roosevelt held conflicting views on immigration.

"On the one hand, Roosevelt frequently argued that each American should be treated on 'his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have,' " Godshalk said.

"On the other hand, Roosevelt also expressed fears that African-Americans and immigrants -- especially German and Irish Americans -- placed their racial and ethnic loyalties above their duties as citizens."

Early in his career, Roosevelt railed against what he called "hyphenated Americans." During World War I, his criticism "reached a crescendo, and he publicly questioned the patriotism and loyalty of many German and Irish Americans during the war effort," Godshalk said.

Hyphenated Americans? A century ago, Roosevelt could not have imagined the Internet or DNA testing could gift us the ability to proudly add multiple hyphens.

One flag? What would Roosevelt make of the flags of so many nations adorning many a rearview mirror or back bumper of immigrants and generations of U.S. citizens?

One language? What would he make of religious services or cultural gatherings in native languages?

"An Irish flag hanging from a car mirror, speaking Italian to another Italian, Roosevelt would view them as signs of disloyalty to the U.S.," Godshalk said.

The idea is ridiculous in this global, 21st century economy. Yet Roosevelt's conflicting notion of inclusion -- but not for everyone -- stubbornly survives. Especially for the nation's newest immigrants.

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