November 8, 2012

We are hoping that the 48th President of the US will make immigration reform a major agenda item.

As Michael Teitelbaum of the Sloan Foundation so clearly outlined–here are some of the diametrically opposed underlying assumptions: Immigrants are seen…

  • as either major contributors to national prosperity… or as serious drains on national income. 
  • as ambitious and hardworking strivers who seek to better their lives by immigrating… or as 
    freebooters seeking the benefits of publicly-­‐financed health, welfare and education benefits 
  • as committed to and demonstrating real success in integrating into US society… or as perpetuating social divisions and poverty by choosing to reside in immigrant enclaves 
  • as enthusiastic supporters of US society, indeed adoptive patriots with a high propensity to national service in the US military … or as residents-­‐of-­‐convenience, of questionable loyalty, who seek only economic advantage and contribute to political divisiveness, extremism and even terrorism 
  • as the world’s “best and brightest”, talented scientists and engineers whose high skills contribute to US competitiveness … or as poorly-­‐educated and low-­‐skilled workers whose US 

There are several basic issues, all arguing in favor of restructuring and liberalizing our immigration policy: The first issue is our heritage. We are a nation of immigrants, which is now threatening to close the door on immigration. Don’t we give any credit to the benefits of immigration that across less than 250 years, raised the US from a few disgruntled European immigrants, to the status of the strongest nation in the world? There has to be some credit given the drive, energy, hope, determination, and persistence that immigrants of all kinds brought to our shores. This is one of our unique distinctions in the world–that we are a nation that can tolerate and accept people of other cultures, religions, languages, and we can find the way to integrate and yet respect the differences of peoples from everywhere. Let’s not forget our heritage!

Now, 250 years later, we have a very tangible, indisputable reason–we are a nation which is aging, with a birth rate inadequate to generate youth to work and pay into the social security system to provide care for a population which will live much longer than we expected, thanks to many things, including the advancements of the science of medicine during our lifetimes. If we cannot produce the youth, we need to invite them to our shores–they are waiting! We take in about 6.5 million annually now, but that’s inadequate to meet the needs of our aging population.

Then, there is the contradiction of our driving the world to embrace globalism, free trade, and all of that, launched by the Reagan administration and supported by every administration since then. We have dominated the international governmental organizations’ leadership staffing and their agenda and policies, all of which leads to the developing world being pressured to open their borders to foreign trade. There has been much good to attribute to this drive. We can take partial credit for helping to enable China and India to free 500 million people of poverty since 1980, as an example. However, this drive led by the US has also meant that there are many countries where the opportunity of globalization could not be captured, at least not in the methods demanded of them by the World Bank and the IMF, populated by Washington ideas and policies.

Many of these countries had no benefit and some had increased unemployment, deeper poverty,as they found their limited (usually agricultural) based industries suddenly forced to cope with cheap imports, in some cases resulting from subsidies from wealthy governments seeking to protect their own wealth interests. Examples are the US subsidizing of cotton farmers in the US, such that cotton farmers in sub-Saharan Africa cannot compete, or the EU imposing tariffs on banana imports from countries other than their former colonies.

And, while we promote this openness of trade (to our benefit, far and away more than that of any other country), we deny the disadvantaged of those countries to come to the US and find a job, pay taxes, and have a chance at a life that is better than where they are. How can these two policies co-exist?

Then there is the moral issue: We were born in the US. We need to imagine, just for a moment, how we would feel if we were born in sub-Saharan Africa or in a poor town just south of our Mexican border. Do we really imagine that, seeking the best opportunity for ourselves and our families, we would not try almost any way possible to have a chance at the opportunity in the US? I know I would swim the river for the opportunity!

That leads to what Conservatives may find to be the lynchpin of their anit-immigration argument. I find it so ineffective to hear that a conservative ran into a legal immigrant taxi drive who is frustrated with illegal immigration. That is probably true of most who suffered through our extraordinarily difficult process, but it doesn’t man anything in terms of the answers to the big questions.

It seems that for conservatives, everything hinges on the reportedly 12 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, that live in our country. It almost seems that if they can win the argument to deport all the illegals, then that’s the whole issue resolved–just keep the system we have, build higher fences, etc.

Parenthetically, we don’t know, but can imagine that a good many of those illegals in the US may well have tried to immigrate legally–and if you haven’t immigrated legally, or tried to, you may not know how extraordinarily complex and difficult it is to do so, depending on your country or origin, to some extent. So, many of the illegals may have tried to be legal, but were denied, and perhaps many were denied for what the State Department calls “discretionary” reasons, which means that while I found nothing wrong with your record, I just have a bad feeling about you–and there is no recourse available if I am the agent handling your case.  We have skilled lawyers available in the US for those who can afford it, and they tell me they know which one of our immigration offices and which officer is most amenable to people of certain types of backgrounds, and which are not. What kind of system is this?

As to those who are here illegally, no one can dispute that they should have come legally, but the burden of that is on both them and on us, for the difficulties we imposed on their coming. But, they’re here. And, for those who are paying taxes or are willing to do so, and do not have a criminal record, let’s give them a chance and let go of the irritation and all the associated unresolved issues as to who is responsible–us or them, and let them stay. For the others, we need a broader set of criteria to break them down into groups and evaluate, assist, etc. For those involved in crime, etc., deportation may be appropriate, but even here, we need to examine the issues involved.

We need to liberalize and streamline our rules and procedures. And, it’s not right to just admit the wealthy who can buy homes or start businesses and hire people–yes to them, right away, but we also need to be open to people like those who came across on the Mayflower–most of them were not engineers or business investors.

Lastly, there can be little doubt that the world is careening toward one world–just take a look down your main street and notice the dramatic change in enthnicity of people who share space with you. We can go about this worldwide integration reluctantly, with resistance, even force and violence, or we can go about it willingly, thoughtfully, and with belief we can find the good in it–as we have so many ways across our 250 years. But, either way, it is inevitable–the world is becoming one world. Let’s be leaders in the integration.

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