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Welcome change, reporter says

A world of immigrants is on the way to our neighborhoods, and our lives are bound to change as a result, a familiar voice promised Friday at the University of Utah.

The United States will receive by far the most newcomers, "from everywhere," said Public Radio International reporter Tony Kahn, citing U.N. population research. Kahn wowed his U. audience with a few choice figures: 1.1 million immigrants, refugees and adoptees will be arriving every year on American shores. By 2040, one in four of our neighbors will be foreign-born. Right now, 15 million U.S. residents "are still learning the ropes" of life in America, since they moved here only in the past decade.

Yet amid the influx, Americans are fearful, Kahn said. They're scared of outsiders, much like they were scared of left-leaning artists during the McCarthy Era of the 1940s and '50s. Kahn's father, screenwriter Gordon Kahn, was accused of being a Soviet sympathizer, blacklisted and forced to move his family to Mexico.

"I grew up bilingual and bicultural," the younger Kahn said. "The music that moves me most deeply is mariachi music. . . . I do my best thinking in English, and my deepest feeling in Spanish." As a boy and then as a reporter, Kahn has watched what happens when people and their cultures collide. They produce something new and stronger.

The United States is made of that cultural collision, Kahn added. Immigration is "the core story of America; its Book of Genesis." Waves of immigrants fueled the early industries in the East; they developed the American frontier and they settled the West. "A major convulsive change faces this country every 50 years," and we can't really hide from it, he said.

Kahn quoted a friend who had spent his career as a high-ranking official with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The friend called immigrants "an engine of human evolution . . . and the best source of new ideas."

America's mission, he said, wasn't to try to control the flow of humanity, but to "host it and celebrate it as best we can."

But in these days of war and fear of terrorism, America is trying to slam its doors, Kahn said. We have the Department of Homeland Security, "not Homeland Renewal or Homeland Opportunity. It's an alarming trend."

Still, just as immigration is a fact of life in America, so is the fear of change. "That fear is being manipulated by politicians," Kahn said. But "you have to be open to the possibility of change," he added, "by keeping the doors open to difference. Or else this country is not the country you think it is, nor is it the country that's worth fighting for."

What gives him hope? "Contact with people," Kahn answered immediately. "That gives me energy." If we have any chance of living peacefully with newcomers, we'll have to meet them one on one as fellow members of the human family, he said.

In his seven years reporting for the public radio program "The World," Kahn has interviewed about 3,000 people, from army generals to undocumented immigrants. Their views, and their ways of adapting to their surroundings, sound foreign at first. But open-hearted listening can allow one person to understand — and appreciate — another, accent and all, he said.

A woman in the audience said Utah's Alliance for Unity, a group formed by billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman and Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, has sought to make peace among differing religious and ethnic groups. The woman lamented that she saw no alliance member in attendance at Kahn's speech, which was the keynote for the U.'s School of Social Work Diversity Conference. She added that some leaders have suggested "diversity dinners," in which Utahns invite people from different backgrounds into their homes for dinner. She hadn't heard of any such dinners happening yet.

We do need to do things like that instead of merely theorizing about diversity, Kahn agreed. "We need to figure out ways that people can be brought to that table — even if it's only two people" to start with.

"Reinventing the poetry of diversity," he said, "is the challenge of our time."


E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com