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Navarrette: It’s not all bad that immigrants sink or swim

American flags are seen on a lawn in front of the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y. where a gunman killed 11 people then himself.

American flags are seen on a lawn in front of the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y. where a gunman killed 11 people then himself.

Last week’s tragedy at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., shows us that evildoers can inflict a lot of damage on those trying to do the right thing.

It also shows that many Americans are quick to try to use incidents like this to further their own agendas.

A gunman barricaded the back door of the center, which helps newcomers learn English and assimilate into society. Armed with handguns and wearing body armor, he killed 11 immigrants who were taking a citizenship class, along with a receptionist and a teacher. Four others were wounded. Then the assailant took his own life.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz told CBS News that Americans have become desensitized and immune to massacres because – after Columbine, Virginia Tech and other tragedies – we pretty much know what the story is about.

Not really. The truth is, we have only the foggiest idea what this story is about. Police still are trying to piece together a motive.

Of course, the fog didn’t prevent people from speculating. Predictably, some were quick to make this story about gun control. And a day after the Binghamton shooting, three Pittsburgh police officers were slain by a man reportedly afraid of a potential gun ban.

But in Binghamton, however, the issue may not be about gun control. There was no unregistered assault weapon used, as has often been the case in other such shootings.

Instead, the assailant had two registered handguns along with a hunting knife. Both firearms were listed on a gun permit obtained more than 10 years ago, according to Police Chief Joseph Zikuski.

Since the gunman had written a letter to a New York television station alleging harassment by police, others see this as a story about paranoia and mental illness. That may be true, but there seems to be more here than a mental breakdown.

Meanwhile, perhaps because I’m often exposed to anti-immigrant rhetoric, I naturally assumed that this was yet another “hate crime” aimed at foreigners, similar to any number of previous incidents that we’ve witnessed in recent years. I also heard from immigration activists who assumed the same thing.

Interestingly, at the other end of the spectrum, I also heard from immigration restrictionists who seemed to be preparing to argue that this was yet another act of violence by a crime-prone Latino immigrant, akin to the stories you hear whenever people rail against so-called sanctuary cities where local police are barred from enforcing immigration law.

Then the details surfaced. The attack didn’t fit the definition of a hate crime since it doesn’t seem to have been racially motivated.

What’s more, the assailant wasn’t a nativist, but an immigrant himself. And yet, contrary to the assumptions of many Latinophobes, he hadn’t come to the United States from Latin America but from Asia.

He was identified as 41-year-old Jiverly Wong, an immigrant from Vietnam who was ethnically Chinese. His family said he was angry at losing a job and not being able to find another, and that he complained about his “bad luck.”

They also said that Wong felt people looked down on him because of his poor English skills.

These revelations could not have been easy for either camp to swallow. I often hear nativists on the right hold up Asian Americans as a “model minority” because they’re so eager to assimilate. And obviously, those on the left had little interest in a story where the villain was an immigrant. So, as quickly as the chatter started, it tapered off.

Agendas aside, there is a lot to learn from this unfortunate episode, and some of it does have to do with immigration.

I’ve heard sociologists say that for all America offers immigrants, it also does them a grave injustice by marginalizing them and not providing enough support systems to ease the alienation that often comes with giving up your country for another.

I disagree. One of the things that make this country great is that it keeps hand-holding to a minimum. Immigrants sink or swim, and that’s not all bad. Living in this country, they are going to learn about excuses and entitlements soon enough.

Let’s not snuff out the courage, initiative and self-reliance that immigrants bring with them. Some will sink. But most will swim.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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