Monday, March 1, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Immigration

I love my friend, the Indy Bikehiker, but sometimes I think he's delusional. Recently, he posted this entry in his blog. (Link here.) It's all about a conference to learn "media advocacy training on immigration reform" that he attended. He writes that it's a "hands on,...workshop on media messaging for the sake of addressing the challenge of finding a way for more than 12 million illegal immigrants to become tax paying citizens." In other words, how to frame the problem so that people will become more accepting of giving people in the United States illegally amnesty. He notes a problem:

But this language [theological and ethical] and approach is not winning the hearts and minds of most Americans, who take a much harder, jaded view of illegal immigrants. People have ambivalent feelings about folks who are in our country without documentation, or who have stayed after their visas expired. The mood of the majority of Americans right now is not at all favorable toward them. Finding the language and approach that speaks to our common interests and values in regard to the future of 12 million illegal immigrants is critical.

That "harder, jaded view" of immigrants is the result of many factors: one, immigrants taking good jobs from Americans because they will work for less. Do not tell me that you have not noticed the change in the ethnic composition of construction workers such as roofers and carpenters in your community! Secondly, immigrants keeping their language differences intact. Do you think that German speaking immigrants or Italian speaking immigrants were given a pass because they could not speak English? There was no equivalent of "Pour espanol, marque dos" for the foreign language speaker in the mid-late 1800s and early 1900s. It was "learn or else; swim or sink." I do think that the lack of English proficiency and the development of Spanish as an alternative language has retarded the integration of Spanish speakers into the greater American culture. It has kept them far more separated (both in terms of them becoming more American and America benefiting from the good things in their culture) then previous immigrant waves who had to learn English to survive. Thirdly, there is a perception that the illegal immigrants get entitlements and services without paying for them. This is certainly true of medical care, as reflected by the trials of public health facilities in southern California and Arizona who have had to provide much uncompensated care for illegal immigrants. Finally, there is the simple fact that humans are tribal animals. We distrust those who are different, until we get a chance to know them. Barriers, such as language, do not help in the process of breaking down this tribalism. And if we are being honest, these tribal instincts can turn into bigotry and discrimination. It happened with the Irish, you know. For a long time it was "No Irish need apply."

I am not a racist xenophobe. And truthfully, this nation needs immigrants. We need the new ideas, the energy, the youth, the enthusiasm of those who have just come to this country and discovered its freedoms and possibilities. And 12 million people is a lot of people to throw out of the country. It would be better to have most of them stay, and put them on the books legally. Then enforce the borders with rigor to prevent more illegal immigrants, open up the system more to make legal immigration a little easier and enforce rigorously rules concerning employers and documentation for all workers. Indy Bikehiker concludes:

Can careful messaging in the news media and in conversations with people effectively turn detractors and skeptics into favorable voters and advocates to resolve an immigration situation that has spiraled out of control and leaves many people--American citizens as well as illegal immigrants--vulnerable and angry? I hope the answer is yes.

In the end, no matter how flowery your words are, you are going to have a very hard time convincing the working man who is not working and sees the Spanish speaker working that illegal immigrants don't need to go, and go now. A true working solution to the immigration problem will show the jaded American that he can be protected from losing things (jobs, hospitals) to the immigrant wave, will show immigrants that it is worth their while to become more integrated with American culture, including learning the majority language, and to both, that working together is better than working apart and at odds.

Maybe I'm the delusional one. But we've done it in the past. It wasn't painless, but this German-Irish person knows that it's been done. And America was--and is--the better for it.

Blogger's note: I apologize for the wild combos of font sizes in this post. Blogger has a mind of its own sometimes!

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