Saturday, June 9, 2007

What we stand for as a nation

Every once in a while I come across a post on one of the numerous blogs I read that is so timely and perfect that it sums up a situation far better than I could ever hope to.

Given the current state of affairs regarding immigration reform, and the apparent legislative limbo we have been tossed into, the following post from Dialy Kos by WayneNight, puts it all in perspective, and in many ways presents us with a blueprint going forward....we simply must ask, "what kind of a nation do we really want to be"

Give Us Your Well to Do, Your Educated, Your Valuable

by WayneNight

Recently, I was flipping through my copy of The American Century, by Harold Evans, and I found a story about late 19th century Romanian immigrants. This story turned my thoughts to the immigration bill that recently stalled in the United States Senate, and the impact it could have, if it ever passes, on what we stand for as nation – not only now, but, for generations in the future.

In The American Century, on page 90, Evans tells the story of a family of immigrants from Bessarabia. According to Evans, their journey began with the words, "Let us send the blood out of the country":

The blood was a country girl of 17 and a man of 22 newly discharged from the Romanian Army. Their marriage was arranged by their parents, the life's savings of two peasant families scraped together so that the two young people, who hardly knew each other, might escape the Cossack pogroms that the parents and other children were left to endure: there was no money for everyone to go.

Although America has not always lived up to its ideal on immigration, the United States has represented, for many in the world, a place of freedom and new opportunities. Through the eyes of immigrants, America is a chance to build a new life, to work their way into an economic stability that might not have been possible in the countries that they left, to guarantee a better future for their children.

Although the Senate immigration bill attempted to tackle the laudable goal of providing a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, the bill, at the same time, also moved into implementing drastic changes in the legal immigration system. Most notably, the White House, lobbyists, and a group of bi-partisan Senators included in the immigration bill a provision that would set up a so called "merit based" system to evaluate candidates for green cards.

Under the proposed system, it would be possible for an applicant to receive 100 total points. 75 would be awarded for job skills and education. 15 would be awarded for English language proficiency. 10 would be awarded for family ties. Although points could also be awarded for people in 30 "high demand" occupations (such as home health care and food service), the system, over all, would favor professionals with graduate degrees in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Furthermore, under the original form of the bill, the allocation of points could not be changed for 15 years, though Senator Barack Obama offered an amendment to reduce that period of time to a "mere" 5 years.

Supporters of the point system claim that it would "make the U.S. more competitive in the global economy." However, one has to wonder... would it really make us more competitive in the long run? And, in the final analysis, would it make us a better country, or would it represent an abandonment of the American immigration ideal that allowed individuals such as the Romanians above to come to the country, and start a new life of freedom and opportunity?

According to The New York Times, a Migration Policy Institute analysis of the Senate immigration bill shows it would have the likely following effects on immigration from various regions of the world:

Immigrants from many Asian countries would do well. In the last 15 years, more than three-fourths of immigrants from India, and more than half of those from China, the Philippines and South Korea had bachelor’s degrees or higher. Most immigrants from India and the Philippines report speaking English well.

Immigrants from Latin America would "face more difficulties" in getting green cards. More than 40 percent of recent immigrants from this region are in the preferred age range, 25 to 39, but many lack educational credentials and English language skills. More than 60 percent of adult immigrants from Mexico have not completed high school. Just 5 percent have college degrees. Only 15 percent of recent Mexican immigrants are proficient in English

The United States has received comparatively few immigrants from Africa, but many of them have characteristics that would help them earn points.

About two-fifths of recent African immigrants are in the preferred age group. Two-thirds are proficient in English. And 38 percent have a bachelor’s or higher degree.

What's disturbing is the projected negative impact on Latin America. Much of the pent up demand for legal immigration comes from that region, which, in turn, is why we face many of our problems from illegal immigrants.

Cries to "get in line" must ring hallow on the ears of most illegal immigrants, as cuts in legal immigration from previous decades have ensured that there's not much of a line for Latin American immigrants to stand in. Indeed, despite being our neighbor, and one of our largest trading partners, immigrants from Mexico must compete for limited legal immigration slots with immigrants from countries like Bahrain. The ultimate result is that "legal" status is available mostly to those who have family or other connections in the U.S., and legal immigration from "low wage" Mexicans without those connections was only in the double digits in 2005.

As bad as that situation now, one cannot help but wonder how implementing an immigration regime that further penalizes immigration from Latin America could possibly improve the situation. More likely, as it becomes harder for Latin American immigrants to gain legal immigration status, more of them, in the long run, will become willing to try to enter the country illegally.

We cannot, as a nation, loudly proclaim ourselves to be the land of "freedom and opportunity," and then act shocked when those who lack that freedom, when those who have limited opportunity, desire to enter the country, by any means necessary, to build better lives for themselves. Rational immigration policy would recognize this, and stem illegal immigration by creating greater openings for legal immigration from countries and regions where it is in high demand. Only irrational policy would set in place a system that would further limit the legal immigration ability of those who have great desire and need to enter the country, and geographic access that allows them to do so illegally.

What's even more offensive about the proposed point system are the assumptions that it makes about what makes the United States economy "competitive."

From a recent New York Times article about the stereotypes associated with illegal immigrant workers:

Getting the whole truth is not easy, because illegal immigrants are not always easy to find, interview or otherwise include in government or private surveys. But some broad facts seem to be emerging, and they may shatter some preconceived notions: illegal immigrants do not just pick fruit, they do not just work off the books, they rarely earn less than the minimum wage and they may even be raising employment without harming incomes.

The article goes on:

In many cases, the jobs held by illegal immigrants are far from the minimum- or subminimum-wage stereotype, as well. Though the work itself is often unpleasant, the pay rates are commonly in the range of $10 to $20 an hour, said Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior research associate at the Pew center.

"There are some indications that the majority of these workers, maybe 55 to 65 percent, are not in the underground economy," Mr. Passel said. "They’re getting paid the same wage rates as everybody else is in those companies. It’s written down, and if they work there long enough, they’ll get health insurance and everything else."

One could make an argument that similar economic statistics would apply to legal immigrants from the same region, were immigration laws set up to better meet demand. And, further research on the subject raises questions as to whether, perhaps, immigrants with low education and skills who come to the U.S. to build a better life might actually create a net plus for the United States economy. Recent economic studies have confirmed that Hispanics have created substantial economic contributions for the United States. Hispanic immigrants have played a huge role in this.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, among Hispanics 25 and older, 41% lack a High School diploma, and 58% are foreign born. However, Hispanic buying power in the United States totaled $798 billion in 2006, and is expected to reach $1.2 trillion in 2011. In addition, In 2002, 1.6 million Hispanic owned firms existed in the U.S., employing around 1.5 million workers. Much of that economic contribution - from the buying power, to the employment - would not have existed were it not for immigration.

Furthermore, one has to take into consideration the ultimate, long-term benefits to the economy, and to society, that will be established by not only first generation immigrants, but also their children, grandchildren, and great grand children. While, historically, "new" immigrants have spent their time chiseling their way into economic stability, their children have gone on to do great things. The "new blood" infused by previous waves of immigration has given us doctors, lawyers, politicians, entertainers, and a wide swath of America's "stable" middle class.

According to a RAND Corporation study, as cited by the Immigration Policy Center, subsequent generations of Hispanic immigrants will be no exception to that trend. Second and third generation Hispanics make "great strides" in closing the economic gap with whites, and, by the second generation, Hispanic immigrants do as well, and sometimes better, than native born whites in education, labor force participation, wages, and household income.

That the point system may turn its back on the American immigration ideal not only for thousands of Hispanics today, but also for subsequent generations, did not go without the notice of some United States Senators:

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said, "The point system would have prevented my own parents, a carpenter and a seamstress, from coming to this country."

At its heart, the objection raised by Senator Menendez, and other critics of the proposed point system, takes the statement that was used to send off the Romanian immigrants above – "Let us send the blood" – and turns it into a question: "Who will save the blood?" Who will save the blood of the average person, who wishes to come to America to build a new and better life? Who will save the blood of their descendants, who would have become the thinkers, the politicians, and the backbone of America in a new century?

Those questions would seem very pertinent to the Romanian immigrants mentioned at the start of this entry. Both not only went on to become successful Americans in their own right, but also had descendants who helped to make America a better place:

The young couple running with the blood from Bessarbia had sixteen American children, of whom nine survived to become an attorney, a celebrated hat maker, a custom tailor, a sculptor, a legal stenographer, a senior accountant... In 1986, when the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty was celebrated, the audio and video signals of the fireworks festival were picked up and delivered to a television network for world broadcast by a grandson of the original young immigrants - 75 years to the day when they had become American citizens (July 3, 1911).

The inscription on the statue that was broadcast around the world that day does not ask for the world to give us "your well to do, your educated, your 'valuable,' as determined by Senate committee." Rather, it asks for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." In that way, it is a firm reminder of what the American immigration ideal is really supposed to mean, and whom it is really meant to help.

The Senate immigration bill that was shelved yesterday is not entirely without merit. The heart of the bill – allowing undocumented immigrants to earn their way to legal status – is an excellent idea, and one that deserves implementation. The failure of that particular measure to be enacted represents a colossal defeat for thousands of people in this country, who toil hard and contribute to the fabric of this nation without recognition, and in the shadow of fear.

At the same time we are working to bring those workers and their families into the light of day, however, we must not retool the legal immigration system in a way that creates further injustice. In that regard, perhaps it is better that the Senate immigration bill remains, for now, shelved. We must pass such a bill eventually. But, before that happens, perhaps we would be well advised to take more time to consider legal immigration, and ask ourselves serious questions about the American ideal, and what we want our nation to stand for.

The "blood" of the young Romanian couple was sent to America, where they could forge an entirely new beginning, for themselves, and for their descendants. But, who will save the blood that wants to be sent to America today?

For more from Wayne Night here


Anonymous said...

I covet a time where we can all truly value the american ideal of a melting pot society

Laura said...

Duke -- Thanks for posting this. What a wonderful summary of the sort of discussion we should be having in this country.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this a lot, and it makes me ill. Like the proverbial dog in the manger, our people covet ipods and luxury while 10 miles away, children are literally dying in the desert of hunger and exposure.

Someone actually remarked in one of my classes: "it's just terrible what they've done to our desert. I ride my horses out there on the weekends, and you should see the diapers and baby clothes out there trashing up the landscape. It's such a shame."

How far we have come from:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Emma Lazarus

Duke, can you email me? I need to ask you a question.


Eugenia said...

Duke I came accross something you might be interested in


Jared said...

Awesome blog! I will be reading it and spreading the word. Check out my immigration blog and comment please..

Jyoti said...

We are a human rights organization and work around the issue of immigration in the US. Please email me your e-mail address so we can send some media material to you in the future.

Jyoti said...

You can mail me at

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