The following opinion piece on the U.S. Immigration Issue provides a somewhat radical assessment of the question, “Who should be allowed to enter the country?” It does not have the official imprimatur of either COHA or a number of the author’s colleagues who feel that its thesis will be considered to be too controversial. Though some may see it as radical, the essay is being presented here because of the clarity and intellectual merit of its argument, the boldness of its position, and the courage of its thesis.
The immigration issue will net the GOP little, remember that the compromise that was recently shot down in the Senate had both bi-partisan support and opposition, a fact that best illustrates how little U.S. policymakers understood the issues over which they squabbled so tenaciously. Many arguments have been made against illegal immigration to this country, especially by the more conservative anti-immigration activists and Hill lawmakers.
Instead of taking a moral and logical stand in support of America’s rich heritage of immigration, even some of the more “liberal” politicians have practically ceded the issue to their ideological foes and are being led in circles around watered-down guest worker programs and other tepid substitutes to a full-throated immigration strategy which this nation patently requires and which is inherently humane. It is hard to blame humble citizens however, given the massive amount of misinformation and heavy duty propaganda being thrown against the most controversial aspects of immigration. In the absence of a level-headed coverage of the issue, many Americans have fallen back upon crude nativism to guide their understanding of immigration; a dangerous pattern of simplification that politicians help to fuel with paranoid soundbytes reminiscent of the worst sci-fi films such as “no amnesty for criminals!,” and an “alien invasion is occurring around you.”
What then is the truth about the immigration invasion? No matter what scare tactics have been employed to caricature the debate up to now, regulated immigration is good for the United States. Open door immigration – the legalization of any and all immigrants who wish to come to the country, (which is what I am advocating), is a policy that has become so far removed from the recent political trends as to appear at first glance to be impossible to attain or unwise to seek. Yet open unrestricted immigration was the U.S. law of the land from its founding up until 1924, and is the only policy that is both ethically acceptable and which is financially beneficial to the United States. As reader Walter Lippmann points out, Congressmen on both sides of the aisle have long understood the concept of open door immigration, “There’s already an open door for all immigrants, but they have to come from only one country: Cuba.” Yet the demonization of immigrants has sharpened as the debate has heated up, fueled not only by illegal immigrants but by legal ones as well.
Five Myths about Immigration:
Though it might seem that the ethical dimensions behind maintaining our American heritage as a melting pot would be self-evident and therefore given priority, there are an unfortunate number of straw-man arguments that deserve to be properly burned down. The following are the five most prominent anti-immigrant bromides and a refutation of each of them.
“Immigrants take jobs from American workers!”
This is perhaps the most commonly cited rationale for anti-immigrant sentiment which was cynically mobilized by the foes of open immigration. The oversimplified logic behind this claim asserts that an unrestricted ingress of any alien wanting to come here would dangerously increase competition for jobs as well as cause grave social unrest. This presumption is predicated on the assumption that not only is competition bad for an economy, but that an influx of immigrants would take jobs away without providing any new employment opportunities. In reality, jobs are not sacred or reserved for anyone in particular. In a capitalist society, one which conservatives claim to uphold, free competition is the lifeblood of economic prosperity. The irony of supposedly “protecting” American jobs by denying free competition is that it inevitably encourages U.S. corporations to move the jobs out of the country in a process of outsourcing. If a nation is to remain competitive, it has to be based on a meritocracy – how well a worker can work at a job, and not on naked xenophobia.
The main problem over job “loss” to illegal immigrants is not due so much to their being immigrants, as much as their illegal status. Fearful of being deported, and usually in a desperate daily search for a job, illegal immigrants are not protected by minimum wage laws and thus become attractive targets for employers looking to cut costs by paying inhumane salaries. If the illegal immigrants were legalized, and not in constant fear of deportation, they would be able to join labor unions, make investments, participate in civic society and work in relative security – just like other Americans. If all immigrants were legalized, the threat of losing one’s job to an immigrant who would work for next to nothing, would be nullified by the intrinsic protections they have as citizens, such as banning sub-minimum wage salaries, and eliminating any incentive employers might have to favor immigrants.
Moreover, an influx of legalized immigrants into the American economy will likely create as many new jobs for legal employees, as would be occupied by the new immigrants. Consider the beneficial results of a large pool of legal and naturalized immigrants: suddenly there will be millions of new Americans who will be buying food, consumer goods, furniture, housing, insurance, cars, electronics and appliances, not to mention creating a new generation of jobs in the service sector. Immigrants will need to be employed, but at the same time their mere presence will lead to the creation of still additional jobs.
Anti-immigrant militants who claim they want to “protect” American jobs from foreigners rarely take the above factors into consideration, and often propose the most radical “solutions” to the supposed problems that await being cured. For example, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California claimed in one of his speeches, “Why don’t we use our brains and use those people who are available to the United States, for example, the millions of young men, who are prisoners throughout our country, can pick the fruit and vegetables. I say, let the prisoners pick the fruits, let’s not bid down the wages of the American worker with the guest worker program.” Forgetting entirely that the supposed point of his rabid anti-immigrant stance was to protect American workers, Rohrabacher’s proposal in fact had nothing to do with protecting workers from having their jobs stolen, but instead sought to deny immigrants from working at unoccupied jobs by turning American prisoners into slaves! Hostile lawmakers like Rohrabacher don’t seem to understand what they are fighting for, because it certainly isn’t the public weal of American workers. If anything, they would be supporting a counter-intuitive nativist policy of “protecting” unoccupied jobs from foreigners simply because they are foreign, and would rather see those fruits and vegetables rot than let an immigrant do a job no native or naturalized American was inclined to do.
“Immigrants depress our wages and are bad for the American Worker!”
This argument is usually used in tandem with the fear that immigrants will steal Americans’ jobs. Much as is the case with claims of job theft, the problem is not that illegal immigrants are immigrants, but that they are illegal. Wages are depressed by illegal immigration because in most instances such refugees are not protected by labor laws or minimum wage regulations. If the immigrants were legalized and future immigrants registered with an open door immigration mechanism, then they would be protected by the law, and would no longer be a threat to prevailing wages by working for less than minimum pay. What is truly a burden on American workers today is the current status quo: the maintenance of a de facto underclass of illegal immigrants who are unable to join labor unions or seek other protections under the law for fear of being outed.
Keeping the immigrants in constant fear and denying them the protections other workers automatically get is not only keeping the illegals more vulnerable, but is also threatening American workers whose labor protections make them less desirable to unscrupulous employers. The legalization of all immigrants would kill two birds with one stone, protecting both current American workers from the unbeatable competition from illegal immigrants and the immigrants from being manipulated and exploited by employers.
“But they are criminals! How can you grant them amnesty?”
“Illegal immigrants” are considered criminals because U.S. nativists and Washington policymakers have intentionally criminalized them in order to degrade their status and justify that an entire swath of the population is being stripped of protections and a political voice. As evidenced by past injustices perpetuated by skewed legal systems, one cannot be a true criminal in the context of unethical laws. If a slave escaped from the anti-bellum south he/she was legally a criminal, but that was just because of the racist laws that had been set up to maintain the slave-owner’s hegemony. The solution then, as now, is not to assault the immigrants as criminals, but to amend our laws to decriminalize those who are unjustly lumped with real wrongdoers.
Immigration Restrictions of Recent Ancestry
It is important to remember that up until the 20th century the U.S. had benefited from its near open-door immigration policy which, like democracy, was supported by most Americans even as Europe and much of the rest of the world remained under the thumb of entrenched authoritarian monarchies and oligarchs. As the U.S. grew wealthy with the fruits of its swelling population’s labor, the now substantially-better-off population had less incentive to favor populist and humanitarian causes as they began to climb out of poverty and as they forget about their own impoverished immigrant backgrounds. In 1921 Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which was reinforced by the Immigration Act of 1924, limiting immigration to the U.S. from any country to two percent of the existing nationality/ethnic group in the country at the time. This legislation was specifically targeted to racially select Western European immigrants – namely Northern European Protestants- over migrants from less favored parts of the world, as well as favoring Protestant immigrants over Catholics, Jews and other unwanted religious denominations. This bigoted legislation led to many tragedies, most famously the banning of hundreds of thousands of European Jews leading up to and during the 1930’s and 1940’s from immigrating to the U.S., leading to their inevitable destruction in the Holocaust.
Though the earlier legislation was overturned in 1965 with the Hart-Cellar Act, the nativist prejudice enforced for four decades by the 1924 Immigration Act extracted an intellectual toll on our long-standing self conception of the United States as a beacon of liberty. After the tragedy of 9/11, anti-immigrant fervor again surged and has lead to irrational and jingoistic patriotism. Though after 9/11, more than half of Americans surveyed felt that tighter immigration controls would be very effective at enhancing U.S. security; logic seems to have been lost in translation. How else can one explain what causes a populace attacked by an almost purely Saudi Arabian extremist movement that had been in the pay of the Reagan administration, and hailing from a nation that has been one of the White House’s key allies, to decide that the Mexican-American border urgently requires better enforcement?
The notion that America should only allow a small number of immigrants to enter the country, and should use the admissions process to socially engineer American society, is a purely 20th century invention and flies in the face of past precedent. Amnesty for any and all “illegal” immigrants in this country is long overdue, and should be predicated merely upon their being registered as citizens or permanent residents like any legal immigrant would be, and have no felonious record. The real wrongdoers are not immigrants, but the local politicians and nativists who have betrayed our nation’s long heritage of being a haven for the hardworking, desperate masses.
“Immigrants will corrupt our culture or fail to assimilate.”
The irrational xenophobia gripping American politics has led many to fear for their culture and lifestyle in the face of an immigrant “invasion.” For some, America has reached its cultural limit, and any additional contribution of divergent mores– especially if its practices and customs are at odds with the prevailing Anglo-Teutonic value system – will somehow damage the existing cultural milieu. The reality is that American culture and society has historically only been enriched by immigrants. Abandoning the melting pot doctrine out of fear of diversity is inherently opposed to the founding concept of the United States, as a free nation where no specific ideology or culture is supposed to dominate. An American can walk the streets of almost any U.S. city and have Chinese, Italian, Thai, French, Mexican, Malaysian or any other ethnic food. American staples, like hot dogs and hamburgers are of German origin, while Apple pie had been a prized dessert throughout Europe long before the Americans made it a national icon. Our transcontinental railroads were largely built by immigrants, and even our U.S. dollar was modeled on the Mexican Peso. The civil and human rights protected by the U.S. Constitution and bill of rights were formulated by French and English enlightenment philosophers long before they ended up on the agenda of the Founding Fathers. The very land the U.S. now occupies was acquired, by means of a self-declared right of conquest, from the continent’s Native Americans, while California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma were snapped up in an act of sheer imperialism, from Mexico in the Mexican-American War.
The reality is that the multi-cultural heritage of the United States is irreversible and in fact a boon to each generation of its citizens, who enjoy the benefits of the world’s plethora of cultures in many arenas. Any attempt by a section of society to claim cultural hegemony and status as the “true” American culture is simply engaging in an attempt to consolidate power unjustly, or oppress those who are different from themselves, something that has no place in a free country, nor traditionally has been given much of an audience.
“There isn’t enough room in America and immigrants are a negative pressure on our environment”
This argument, while less commonly cited than the others, has more substantive weight in intellectual circles and among environmentalists who would normally be more responsive to a humanitarian case made by refugees clamoring to enter this country. Though it is true that overpopulation is a real problem in the modern world, immigration, both legal and illegal, has little to do with it. Overpopulation in the United States is caused mostly by this country’s own population, which grew from 76 million in 1900 to 300 million in 2000, with at no point more than 16 percent of its population being foreign born. Even with this large internal growth, there is still far more room in the United States for prospective immigrants than many other potential receiving countries. For an environmentalist concerned with the effects of overcrowding, it would be vastly preferable that an immigrant come to the United States over nations like India – whose population density is 10 times that of the U.S. – or Brazil, where crowded and impoverished citizens have resorted to harvesting swaths of the country’s rainforest in order to clear more room for farming.
Environmental concerns are global: what happens in one part of the world will rapidly affect the global environment. As ecological health is a zero-sum situation, denying immigrants access to our country to help reduce local environmental strain will only cause environmental disaster in countries with less stringent green regulations. Ironically, the greater the share of the world’s population that resides in the U.S., the more control the authorities will have over their ecological footprint and the better their ability to enforce pro-environmental laws. If U.S. citizens try to harvest rainforests or damage other valuable natural resources, it is within this country’s legal jurisdiction to stop them, whereas what occurs in third world nations experiencing crushing poverty is far from Washington’s control.
The Real War on Terror
If most Americans took the time to look at the realities behind contemporary trends affecting immigration movement and the boon that such population swells have had on American society, then there wouldn’t even be a debate, and the “issue” of immigration would disappear entirely. Unfortunately, most Americans have long been intentionally misled by fear-mongering politicians who will use nativist, isolationist, and to a large extent, racist arguments to attract undeserved votes and as a base to achieve personal power. The bigoted isolationism to which many Americans subscribe is usually out of a concern for their own self interest, fear for their jobs, their communities, and their first world comforts, as well as the simple fear of the unknown. Many citizens of the most powerful nation in the world live in constant fear which is exploited and fed by politicians, while corporations want all the illegal immigrants that they can get, because low wages and marginal life styles are good for business.
The above arguments attempt to derail some of the fears that drive many Americans to act against their own best interests, albeit unknowingly. By denying mass immigration into the wealthiest country in the world, the U.S. has essentially created a reverse Berlin Wall. If the U.S. creates an artificially high density of labor in other countries by denying access to our shores (and the labor protections that U.S. citizenship entails), we will contribute to a situation of guaranteed poverty where local workers will be desperate enough to work for less than subsistence wages. With the rise of globalization and the spread of multi-national corporations, the impulsive sealing of national borders is being turned to in order to help secure a nation’s livelihood, despite the fact that it will only hinder the working populace on both sides of the border. National economic strength greatly depends upon the international economic wellbeing and a free migration of labor that allows for the diffusion of both poverty and prosperity on a global scale, facilitating a blending of regional living conditions, no matter how scary the concept sounds.
The real war on terror needs to start at home, and shouldn’t just be aimed at catching terrorists. U.S. citizens must break free from the fear and terror that has been used to shackle and manipulate them and realize that any resort to nativism is not only ethically wrong, but is against their self interest. Fear not the immigrant whose life and priorities are much the same as your own. The only thing we have to fear is being used to achieve the ends of the political-industrial complex, which has no qualms with exploiting the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and who will gladly sow misinformation and prejudice when it suits their needs.