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Immigrants in these United States

I am an immigrant. I grew up bilingual. My grandmother learned English in her fifties, and always spoke with one of those formidable accents that you hear in the movies. So I can’t get too worked up about people who don’t speak English, or who came over on the boat. I came over on a boat, and I still remember walking down the gangway, clutching my teddy bear. I was nearly six at the time.

Immigrants come here to survive, to make a living, or to make a fortune. I never met anyone who came over purely because they admired the Bill of Rights. This doesn’t make immigrants a particularly mercenary lot, but there are those who say that foreigners who don’t share our “values” should just go home. I don’t know about that. It might be hard to keep the country running with the few people who would be left.

If we start litmus tests for admiration of the Constitution, everyone except ethnic Amerindians should have to pass it, since we’re all rather recent immigrants. The outlook is not promising. Consider, for instance, a National Constitution Center poll done about ten years ago that found one in six Americans believe the Constitution establishes the US as a Christian nation. Freedom of religion was the whole original point of the country, and this is what we’ve come to. That was only one of a long string of depressing results, and things have not improved since. Recently there was a poll finding that 20% of Americans (one in five!) believe the Constitution guarantees the right to keep pets and drive cars. No doubt, the Bill of Rights refers only to the standard transmission cars available in the late 1700s.

I think the evidence shows that immigrants do share American values. Like most people, they’re not thinking too much about the Bill of Rights and they’re doing their best to get by.

I think the real objection to immigrants’ values is their inability to see the special value of Americans. Immigrants know other countries in a way that many Americans don’t, and they know that Americans are just folks. When you have grown up feeling that you’re one of God’s chosen, uniquely gifted to bring goodness to the world, it’s depressing to have people around whose very homesickness says that the US isn’t everything.

Immigrants are also supposed to be depressing because they take jobs away from citizens. Well, they do. Without an adequate social safety net in the US, there are plenty of citizens who would work at any jobs they could get. But they could also demand minimum wages. They could demand compliance with safety, health, and environmental regulations. They could, God forbid, unionize. This is not what (most? all?) employers want. Employers want voiceless, exploitable illegals. The job that “Americans won’t do” is hiring workers who can demand their rights.

While I’m on that topic, let’s talk specifically about the subset of immigrants who are illegal. The Immigration Reform bill currently stuck in Congress–the one that planned to turn illegals into felons, but ran into trouble because people noticed–will do almost nothing to allow illegals to become citizens. For illegals who’ve been here over five years (and I’d be willing to bet that means continuous residency, without any secret trips home over the long years to see family), they can get in line for permanent residency. So far, so good, but long-term residents are not the seething mass of border-crossers we’re supposed to be afraid of.

People who’ve been here between two to five years can go back to their home countries and apply for permanent residency there. I’m sure lots of migrant fruit pickers have the savings to travel home and then sit on their hands for several years in a country they left because they couldn’t make a living. It takes years to get permanent residency. This isn’t like going to the DMV and getting your driver’s license. It also takes unbelievable quantities of paperwork. My university-educated mother struggled with it, and it boggles my imagination to think of farmworkers having to deal with it.

Illegals who’ve been here less than two years could get temporary guest worker status. That would create a permanent class of workers who could not vote. They would have no recourse–none, zip, zilch–against exploitation. If they made any waves, like say asking for an extra bathroom break, they could be fired and sent home. Citizens wouldn’t care because it didn’t affect them. But soon, citizens who wanted better-than-slave labor conditions would find themselves replaced by guest workers. Guess who would benefit hugely from this. Guess who’s the biggest supporter of the “Immigration Reform.”

As BottleofBlog puts it so well:

That’s the ugly hilarity of Republicans proposing an immigration bill. It’s that simple. … These are people who get their jobs from scaring the bejesus out of you about open borders, when what they really want to do is pave a giant highway across the border. And these are people who earn a living by whipping up your ugliest emotions at people who are getting something on your dime, when really, you’re getting something on their dime–cheap food, cheap service, cheap whatever.

And the cost is spread out to all of us.

My take on the economics of illegal immigrants is that the sense of being ripped off is way overblown. Kids in schools and people in emergency rooms are easy notice. People forget what stuff would cost if illegals weren’t there to work for next to nothing, and to depress other menial wages. (In my books, the latter is not a benefit, but we’re talking about people who don’t want anyone to cost them anything.) It’s also hard to put a price on how much more our foreign affairs would cost if billions of dollars in remittances were not sent home, were not keeping whole populations out of desperation, and weren’t helping to prevent the resulting (expensive-to-Americans) revolutions, wars, sabotage, attacks, nationalizations of businesses, mass refugee movements, and all the rest.

Besides, if illegals require taxpayer-funded services, whose fault is that? If you, as a US citizen, have an employer who doesn’t pay the outrageous cost of health insurance, you too are one of the millions of citizens using emergency rooms. Would you be depending on charity if you had coverage? Of course not. So, is the situation your fault for getting ill? Or the employer’s for sloughing off costs this society expects them to shoulder? What we’re really complaining about is that illegals aren’t being paid a living wage and that some of them don’t pay taxes. They’d be happy to do both. Ask them, if you doubt me.

Moving on to arguments that might seem to have validity, what about the fact that illegal immigrants are, in fact, illegal? They broke the law. They shouldn’t break the law.

That is true. Nobody should break the law. This includes the US itself. As MaxSpeak notes, the US has made such a mess of Central and South America that hosting hardworking people is the least we can do. Not all of the mess we made was “illegal,” but some of it was legal only in the sense that slavery was once legal. Words were written on paper to sponsor criminality. That doesn’t make it legal in any real sense of the word. Look at US actions, including recent ones like the Nafta legislation that flooded Mexico with enough cheap agribusiness corn to kill whole corn-growing regions. Then look at immigrants who are crossing the border because they’d rather not starve to death. I just cannot get worked up about the criminality of the immigrants.

The other problem with sending all the illegals home is that it is impossible. The Amerindians did not issue visas. If the first settlers were illegals, so is everyone they brought in after them. (That is the current logic, I believe. The children of illegals are not supposed to have a right to citizenship.) So, the rest of us should just go “home”? And where would that be? On the other hand, if hanging on long enough somehow makes it okay, who’s to define what is “long enough”? It’s a bit convenient if long enough means I’m okay, but you’re not.

Another bugbear is security. After all, anyone could be among those undocumented millions flooding across the border.

That is also true. But recent terrorist attacks by foreigners in the US were all the work of legal foreigners. They were on student visas, or tourist visas, or otherwise quite well known to the INS. Terrorists need to have enough money to commit their terrorisms. They aren’t going to be paying some smuggler a couple of thousand dollars for the privilege of walking across a lethal desert for a week or two. They fly in. And they don’t pick fruit. Sealing the Mexican border to prevent terrorism is like searching Granny’s jogging shoes while letting whole container ships offload without inspection.

I’m not saying that countries have no right to control their borders. On the contrary, I think the current inhabitants of a country do have the right to object to mass immigration that would change their world into something else. Ethnic Tibetans have a right to object to the land grab by the Han Chinese. Ethnic Fijians have a right to find some way to preserve their culture despite the enormous number of Indians brought in by the British to work the plantations. (And, yes, I realize that gets into very thorny issues like the Palestinians and Israeli Jews, or the Dutch and citizens of their former colonies. I have thoughts on that, too, but that’s a topic for another post.) Cultures, especially endangered ones, have a right to preservation, even if it is not yet written into law.

The US, however, is one of the few countries with almost no claim to this right. It’s a nation of immigrants. US culture is mainly about doing your own thing. At the highest levels, that includes the Bill of Rights and it really is a contribution to the human story on our planet. However, that isn’t pegged to any single ethnic group or to any race. In the US, talk about loss of our “culture” by invading hordes from across the border isn’t really about culture. It’s about richer immigrants who want the poorer ones to shut up and work.

(Other links: Krugman. Brad Plumer: a series of good posts at the end of March-beginning of April with excellent links to the economics of the issue.)

Technorati tags: immigrants, immigration reform, illegal aliens, HR 4437