Monday, December 29, 2014

In Praise of Immigrants

I am an immigrant. A documented one, from a Northern European country. I am an immigrant through and through and proud of what I have become because of it. I began my immigrant career at the age of four, when my family moved to France from Hungary, right before the Iron Curtain closed off many of the countries of Eastern Europe and made them satellite states of the Soviet Union.

A child of a mixed marriage between a Jew and a Gentile, born amongst the rubble of World War II, I became a political refugee and grew up in Paris and Amsterdam. You couldn't ask for a better apprenticeship if you are an aspiring immigrant.

I consider myself lucky to have had the privilege of living my life where several cultures meet. Maybe because of my gypsy roots, I have always felt a sense of adventure by moving about and living in new places. There was a childish excitement brewing in me, especially when I came to America. It was huge, wild and seemed to fit my disorderly and chaotic nature.
But my story is not unique. It is the story of millions who came to America, ever since its foundation. After all, America is a country of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Trying to unravel the knots in the history of immigration in this country is a task beyond my abilities, but here is a brief overview:
(Read more on the history of immigration here)

US population
per year
% of population
14.3 million
62 M
Northern Europe/ Germany/Ireland
.9 M
18.2 million
104.5 M
Eastern and Southern Europe/Italy, Greece
1.4 M
since 1965
44.5 million
194-316 M
Mexico, Latin America and Asia
2 M
.63 %

There have been three major waves of immigration to the United States. Until the late 1800's there were no official restrictions or laws overseeing immigration to the US, but after the Civil War, Congress began to pass legislation which excluded certain groups, like the Chinese. Between 1900 and 1920 over 14.5 million immigrants were admitted, many of whom came from Southern Europe. Congress responded with the new quota system, which favored Northern European immigrants and completely excluded people from Asia and Eastern Europe. In1965, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, Congress replaced the quota system based on national origin with a preference system designed to reunite immigrant families and look at skills rather than nationality. The intention was to be more 'fair'.

This had unexpected consequences, one of which was to shift the immigration population from overseas to America's neighbors.* Before 1965, immigration from South America had always been open, mostly because the US needed cheap labor, but with the 1965 law, a new cap was placed on Western Hemisphere immigration and this, together with the abrupt stop to the Braceros Program (a migrant worker program meant to fill a need for manual labor), caused illegal immigration to soar. Instead of making it easier for immigrants to come legally by raising the quotas or creating a substitute for the Bracero Program, legislation became more and more restrictive, forcing many immigrants into detention camps and spending millions on law enforcement. Being an immigrant is now not so different from being a criminal.

Illegal immigration is definitely a problem, but the 'anti-immigration' bug has infected many Americans. The laws here are becoming less and less immigrant friendly, but without continued immigration, America will stagnate. It is the children of immigrants who raise the standard of living in America. Second generation immigrants own more homes, are better educated, have higher incomes and are in less poverty than the average American. They are the strongest huskies in the pack, out in front, pulling the sled faster and further.

Although the United States is still a favorite destination for many immigrants, there are many other countries that have higher proportions of immigrants than the US. They do not all treat 'aliens' like criminals. Instead of making life difficult for immigrants, this country should do the opposite: encourage immigration, and encourage immigrants who are already here to stay. The thousands of 'unaccompanied minors' who have fled South America, 'unaccompanied' because their parents would rather see them live in exile than be killed by drug lords, should receive political refugee status.

President Obama's recent proposal to offer a path to citizenship to about 1.5 million young adults (the 'dreamers') who were brought here as children and who can not move ahead with their lives because they are undocumented, should be passed. The people who have come here to do our dirty work should be granted legal rights and protection. That would be a good start for real Immigration Reform. Then I would be proud again to be an immigrant in this country. leave comment here

Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America
The United States Was Welcoming to White European Immigrants, But Not to Peoples of Color
Overview of INS History
Time to Stop Criminalizing Immigrants