Solving the Immigration Conundrum, or Lining Up the Present with the Past

Posted on May 31, 2010


Not too long ago I was in Miami, often called the “cultural capital” of Latin America because it is a city of immigrants who have poured into southwestern Florida from all across Latin America. The flavor of Latin America is stamped everywhere.

I hardly ever speak English when I’m in Miami since I am bilingual, like so many in Miami, from Cuba, Colombia, Peru, from every country and island to the south of us. If in the company of non-Spanish speakers, like my wife Louise who grew up on a ranch in south central Florida, but firmly Anglo and American in their background, we speak English. It is not polite to jabber away in a language not known to someone in your group.

But it’s not just the language, the music, the beat, the Latino rhythms of the city. Miami, like all of America, but in a hyper fashion, is a fantastic mixture of so many immigrant streams from across the world, from Uganda to China, Ireland to Lebanon, all having come to America to live a dream.

What I realized in Miami is that while the Latinos and Hispanics are living the dream, so many of us across America on the other hand seem to have abandoned it, shrunken by the willingness to submit to someone else—the government in this instance—to take care of all our needs, from cradle to grave. Maybe of course my sensitivity was heightened by rubbing shoulders with a lot of Cuban-American friends who fled Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship years ago. They have a long and enduring hatred of the dictator who forced them and their parents and grandparents into exile.

But while my sense may have been sharpened by my Cuban American friends, what I sensed was not simply coming from observing their collective destinies.

What I sensed was that the “American dream” was very much alive and vital among the immigrant community there, and, by extension, across immigrant communities all across America, and it contrasts dramatically with a society given to collecting entitlements and loudly clamoring for “rights” and “benefits” owed them by government, the welfare state gone amok.

Let me explain before you stop reading and shrug this off as another Fox T.V. fanatic, ready to pull the handle for Sarah Palin and a great admirer of such loudmouths as Rush Limbaugh. Don’t rush to judgment. This is a tempered piece.

Ask any immigrant, past and present (those perhaps naturalized or given permanent residency for example), why they came to America and their answers will be in two, broad general categories: jobs and economic opportunities; and freedom from political oppression or disorder.

In the past immigrants flocked to the U. S. in an orderly fashion, first being cleared for immigration abroad before coming to the U. S., arriving at the great portals of entry, like Ellis Island in New York harbor, by the thousands, then tens of thousands, and finally millions.
The stream of immigrants over the past five centuries was governed by a lot of factors, all the way from the first settlers sent by the Spanish to St. Augustine, a little frontier city, the first permanent European city in what would become the U. S., to today’s laborers sneaking across the southern borders to find work. The stream became so heavy in the nineteenth century that eventually tighter control and quotas were imposed in the early twentieth century to limit and filter immigrants.

Not every sick, homeless, persecuted or penniless person could make the trip to the land of the free and the brave. This historical phenomenon is sometimes forgotten by those what want “open” doors to the world, and once the world arrives, “open” admission. It has never worked that way, and it is not in our national interest, any more than open admission can make any sense as the gateway into colleges and universities. At some point, a critical difference has to be drawn between those who can and those who can’t, those who want to succeed and those who think they deserve success or rewards from a sense of privilege or entitlement, it doesn’t make much of a difference. The country was built on a very sharp competitive spirit which rewarded the achievers, the creators, the entrepreneurs, the hard working, the ambitious, the savers not the spenders, the bold who saw a vision and pursued it within the boundaries of fairness, honesty, legal traditions, and civic responsibility which our government framework ensures.

And it is this type of spirit that seems very representative of the immigrants still seeking, many successfully, a ticket to work in this country. They bring energy to the equation that may be the most powerful spring in our economy. But they also bring problems when the flood gates are torn down by millions who come in illegally.

At the crux of matter, it seems to me, is how to reconcile what we believe with what we do. In other words, does the reality of our existence and rhetoric match what we preach and practice?

Let me give one easy example. Many of us hold fast to the concept that free enterprise, unfettered by government regulation or intervention, is the mainspring of our wealth. In fact, there has never been totally free enterprise, where market conditions determine success or failure across the economic landscape. There has always been some sort of government regulation, going back to the mercantilism that prevailed when English settlers began to arrive in North America in the seventeenth century.

At issue in the eighteenth century, and one of the leading causes of the American Revolution, was how much should central government, in this case the King and Parliament in England, do to govern properly the colonies. That’s another whole essay, or book.

On the other hand, many hold to the principle that if left alone, greed and unbridled ambition create great chasms between the wealthy few and the great mass of workers, whether in the industrial, agrarian, or service sectors. Karl Marx, a nineteenth century economist, took all he observed in England and Europe, and created a solution, known largely as Marxism, or communism.

The grossly unequal distribution of wealth, with the few enjoying a life of privilege and wealth, and the great percentage of the rest of the people subordinated by fate and capitalism to a life of toil and deprivation led to Marxism. Marx’s answer was to create a super state mechanism to ensure that wealth was distributed equally between those who produced it, largely the working and laboring classes, rather than simply accumulated in the hands of a few, the capitalists.

But what was happening in the industrializing cities of Europe was in fact not exactly what was happening in the United States. While capitalism and enterprise were creating great fortunes for men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J. Pierpont Morgan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Marx’s “oppressed proletarians” of Europe were fleeing Europe for the United States. Because, even in the mills and factories of the growing industrial titans of the U. S., or working on the railroads as they drew the nation more tightly together, even in the gross slaughter and packing houses of raw new cities like Chicago and Cincinnati, there was always the opportunity to escape your fate, to work your way out of the dark oblivion of tenements and factories, the chance that your children would rise beyond you, and possessed the chance to become another Rockefeller. This was the American dream that drew immigrants to this land.

And this is the same dream that draws them in today. In immigration history and dynamics there are two factors at work: the “push” factor and the “pull” factor. The push factor we identified above: political oppression (witness the Jewish pogroms in Russia and other parts of Europe), a frozen class structure that locked you into an unchanging destiny with little opportunity of advancement, starvation (the Irish potato famine), and other “pushing” agents. The pull factor was symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, Lady Liberty. In this land there was freedom, opportunity, a republic where all men were equal (at least in theory; it would take a Civil War and a hundred years of Civil Rights struggle to make it reality), and an apparently boundless economic growth across the land and in the cities, whether you chose to farm, to work in the factories, to drive spikes along the railroad, it all was open, so difference from the class and race-driven cultures of Europe and Asia for example.

The reality, as always, was different. Battles between laboring men trying to organize into fledgling unions, pitted against Pinkerton cops hired by the bosses to quell the unions, were not just symbolic “battles,” but often real battles with scores left wounded and dead. The Irish were despised in the cities of the East as backwards, ignorant, dirty, slovenly examples of old Europe, and immigrants of all nations had to overcome a nasty racism in America, nativist first movements that looked upon immigrants as necessary but unwelcome: necessary to keep feeding the need for labor in the mines, factories and growing cities, unwelcome because they were different, be they Catholic, Chinese, Jews or Mexicans.

But, as in the past, the immigrants added to the mix of people that was America, assimilated over a generation or two and becoming “American,” no matter what they looked like, how they worshipped, or what they spoke at home originally. This process of assimilation in fact could only happen in America, which was, notwithstanding native son movements and racial and ethnic prejudice, a nation of many people. One cannot emigrate to a nation like Italy, or England, or Japan and in the space of a generation or two be totally accepted as an Italian, or Englishman, or Japanese. Your children and grandchildren may speak Italian, or English or Japanese, but you will be different. Not so in America.

Yet, only native American Indian peoples could truly claim authentic bonds to the land, and the joke among them was to “beware of immigrants!” American Indians in fact became foreigners in their own land, am amazing failure of the “American way of life” to deal with a different people for many hundreds of years until mid-twentieth century. But that is another story.

So, immigration has never been a simple subject.

Today we are facing a crisis caused by the massive presence of illegal immigrants in the U. S., largely from Mexico, but with substantial numbers from other countries like Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador for example. We have been sending them mixed messages for several generations. “Workers Welcome,” and “Go Home.”

We hire them knowing they are illegal, and so become contributors and accessories to the crime of being illegal. Then in fits of paroxysm, we try to purge the system of illegals with everything from massive amnesty to massive deportation, building fences, canals and walls to keep them out.

What makes this new wave of immigration different are two factors: one, the wave has been like a tidal wave with little control over access and entry, producing almost eleven million “illegals” in the U.S. right now. And, two, since most have been from Latin America, they have maintained close contact with their homelands, their language, their customs, frequently traveling back and forth, never really severing the ties that other immigrants—Estonians, Russians, Italians, Chinese, Poles, Turks—had to because of the immense distance, literal and figurative, between the lands they left and the one they came to.

So, we have a problem. We are a nation of laws, and now have eleven million people in the country who have very deliberately broken the law. But they broke the law to do something that virtually all our ancestors did, to come to a land of freedom and opportunity. And, adding to the thorny issue, they were “pulled” into America by our need for laborers, to pick lettuce, to make beds in motels, to pluck chickens, to put up houses, to install dry walls, to tend the gardens, to work on the streets, to do all the things that a traditional immigrant community devoted themselves to.

They save their money, spend frugally, send some back to their hometowns and families in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, or El Salvador, and anticipate a better life for themselves, but especially for their children, if they work hard and save. They shop at Wal-Mart and Big Lots, go to church, put their kids into schools, and pay taxes by every purchase they make in the community. The problem is that they were invited to come to America and work, and they did come, but illegally, not obeying the laws and quotas set into place from the early twentieth century on to govern immigration.

They are invigorating our aging population with their youth, otherwise, demographically, we would be aging more rapidly than we are, productive citizens passing into old age, and not enough being born to sustain the economic growth which drives our prosperity, and which most of us have grown to expect. We would be like the French, an old and getting older citizenry, being sustained economically by “guest workers” from North America and the Mediterranean world, often Muslim and different in culture from the French. And they are not assimilating.

We have, on the other hand, the opportunity to keep our way of life that has produced so much happiness and wealth moving forward. We have the chance to keep liberty and freedom of opportunity as the exceptional virtues which have characterized the history of the Unites States, even with all the struggles and battles that come with it.

We need to define very carefully what has made us what we are, and then to study the recent wave of immigration and see how it fits into this larger equation. I am neither politician nor seer.

I do see, as an historian, how it all fit together in the past, and we made it work. We made it work because we had a vision, a republic, a nation of laws, one devoted to liberty, but also one where charity, justice and a respect for one another was part of the equation.

We need to get it right. To do so we need to frame the debate properly. What is it that we are? And how do we keep and propagate it if we think it is worth it?

As I stated it above, “at the crux of matter, it seems to me, is how to reconcile what we believe with what we do. In other words, does the reality of our existence and rhetoric match what we preach and practice?” Once we define those values again, and again, for while values do not change, the times certainly do, then we need to measure the challenges—immigration—against those values.

And, it may be that the current wave of immigrants, like all those in the past which populated this country, embrace the same vision as those in the past—your forbearers and ancestors, and mine– who crossed the Atlantic in sailing ships, or, later, steamed slowly past Lady Liberty and disembarked at Ellis Island. Now they swim or ford the Rio Grande, clamber over fences and barbed wire, arrive on flimsy craft from the Caribbean islands, or, perhaps with forged documents, get off the great jet aircraft pulling up to the gates of Miami International Airport, or Atlanta, or any other gateway into the country. Some even get crammed into container cargos and make the long, suffocating voyage across the Pacific to reach these shores.

They come to work, to save, to live in a land where peace and order prevail, to make a new life, perhaps with the intention of returning to the their homelands, but just as often staying. The only difference between them and your forbearers is they came without permission to do so. They don’t necessarily expect entitlements and privileges, although some will claim them since they see “everyone” getting them. This country must be even better than they thought!

But the vast majority are here to work. But they also must understand that this country—with its many freedoms, its liberties, its opportunities, its political tranquility, its equality—wasn’t always this way. We established some firm principles, and then had to fight to earn them. Not all saw life as a reflection of the principles enshrined in the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence, such as all men are created equal. Or that women—God forbid—had a right to vote!

We fought and then we established laws to reflect the new realities, which were reflections of the grander values and principles established in the Constitution, elucidated over time to take into account our changing culture. And then we codified them and they became law. Women do vote. Slavery was erased from our land. Working men were finally recognized as having a right to organize and defend their rights. And, immigration had to be controlled and restricted. So laws were enacted to reflect the realities, but the laws had to be consistent with the basic principles elucidated in the Constitution, which, by the way, is not immutable. It is not the Bible. It has been amended almost thirty times over the course of the past two centuries, and each amendment has reflected a new reality in American life. We even prohibited drinking alcohol from 1919 to 1933 in a paroxysm of national sobriety. It didn’t work, but it was a reflection of the times, an attempt by something called the Progressive movement in American history to legislate good behavior among its citizens.

Now we need new legislation to reflect the new reality of massive illegal immigration. But let’s be clear in this endeavor. The illegals—by and large—are here to seek the same life as our parents and ancestors. They are invigorating the country by their youth, their work ethic, their determination to succeed on their own. They are, in fact, a clear reflection of what made this country in the past. And they are one of the keys to what it promises in the future. If we think work, personal responsibility, freedom of enterprise, and the initiative of the individual are important to our well being, now and in the future, then we need to codify and enable the new immigrants to get it right with the new laws.

It is the responsibility of our government to do this. Whether it can or will may be the most important factor in determining the success or failure of any given party or President in power. It will be the litmus test of how smart they are to discern the great issues at stake, and legislate on them to bring illegal immigration under control within the statutes and history of this country’s values.

That’s a big job.

Posted in: immigration