Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
A selection from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which is is graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.
We are, after all, all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Even Native Americans, who have been here 10-15,000 years came to America only after their ancestors had lived millions of years in Africa and Asia. There is a kind of hierarchy of immigrants, with more recent arrivals disdained by those who came before and people of color discriminated against by whites. After the Indians came the English, less than 400 years ago. Africans started arriving soon after that, albeit unwillingly. The slave trade ended in 1808, so most African Americans can claim over 200 years working to build this country. There were several waves of immigration from different parts of Europe during the 19th Century. Chinese workers were brought over starting in the last half of the 1800s to build the railroads and pick our crops. Irish and other Europeans did the same work in the East. They were joined in the 20th Century by other Asians, Latinos and more.
These are the people that built this country. Mostly they came because they thought that they would be better off here than wherever they came from. Many came because they had friends or family here. Sometimes they were recruited to come here with promises of plentiful work and high wages. What they ended up with were the worst jobs, backbreaking work that barely paid enough for survival.
Todays immigrants come for the same reasons and they are encouraged to come for the same reasons. Official policy is to limit immigration but too many people profit from this source of cheap labor to effectively stop it. The so-called "illegals" attract most of the attention but they are basically in the same situation as other groups. The difference, of course, is that they are vulnerable in a way that others aren't. Last week's detention of 1200 undocumented workers, who are now slated for deportation, demonstrates this point very clearly. For once, some of the company managers who hired them will face charges but usually employers profit from a cheap labor force too scared to complain, with very few penalties.
The United States has always been of two minds about immigration. On the on hand there is an understanding that this is a country of immigrants. We talk about the melting pot, where people start out with distinct ethnicities but after a generation or two melt together into a distinctly American culture. Some people prefer to think of a stewpot in which people keep their ethnic identity while assimilating into American culture but the basic idea is the same. On the other hand there has always been a resistance to immigrants. People worry that cheap labor will lower wages but there is also resistance to differences in language and culture. This is not a little thing. Over most of human history, ethnic groups did not mix much and when they did, all too often it has been at the point of a sword. We form national bonds based on a common history and a common culture. We have learned to trust our neighbors and distrust strangers.
Restrictions on immigration grew out of anti-immigrant movements like the "Know Nothings" of the 19th Century but they didn't really take hold until we started seeing significant non-white immigration. Laws were passed beginning in the 1920s to attempt to maintain the ethnic identity of the US by establishing quotas for immigration pegged to the proportion of each nationality already here, favoring Europeans heavily. In fact, since quotas were based on the 1890 census, they also worked to exclude Italians and other southern European and Eastern Europeans, who mostly arrived after that date. It should be noted that today's undesirable immigrant may be favored tomorrow. There were also restrictive laws against Chinese and other Asians.
Actually, class proves to be a much more accurate measure of who is welcomed and who is not. Poor people are usually scorned but it is the poor people who provide that low wage labor pool that is so useful for employers. Public policy is weighted against poor people but this is precisely the group that has the most to gain by coming here and that is most in demand. This is where "illegal" immigration comes from. People have shown infinite ingenuity in overcoming obstacles to get across the border. Once here, they fill an important economic niche. However, since they are by necessity in hiding from the authorities, they are vulnerable to exploitation and do not receive the wages and safety conditions that are supposed to be standard here. Complaints can result in a call to the INS and deportation. This creates a labor force that cannot help but undermine worker safety and minimum wage laws for everybody. A case could be made for eliminating these status violations, legalize everybody, enforce the labor laws and eliminate this kind of exploitation.
The other solution is to stop illegal immigration by fortifying the borders and crack down on employers who hire illegals. This has actually been the official policy but it has not been effectively enforced. Groups like the Minutemen say that if we stepped up enforcement we could achieve those goals and protect American culture and jobs from these invaders. They say we could also prevent drugs and terrorists from coming into the country. Perhaps we could, with a Berlin Wall thousands of miles long and a huge military presence patrolling it. We would have to ask if the benefits outweighed the cost.
Nonetheless, this approach has a lot of support and the Sensenbrenner Bill, HR 4437, which embodies this approach passed the House of Representatives. The current wave of protest was in reaction to this legislation coming to the Senate. The bill would make undocumented workers and anybody helping them felons.
Another way to look at it would be to ask what is going on in Mexico, for example, that drives people to make the long arduous journey to the US and put up with the poor pay, bad conditions, discrimination, often separation from their families and the constant threat of deportation. Everybody's story is different but many simply have no better options at home. NAFTA was supposed to help the Mexican economy and encourage companies to create jobs there. Indeed many factories sprang up just across the border, with low wages, often unsafe conditions and poor environmental records. However, now many of those jobs have moved to China where the atmosphere is even more "business friendly". Meanwhile US agribusiness is now exporting food to Mexico cheaper than small farmers there can grow it, causing them to lose their livelihoods and look for opportunities in the north.
The world is shrinking in the modern age. You can travel to any part of the globe in just a few hours. Radio, television and the internet can bring pictures and stories instantly around the world. In this climate, national distinctions are bound to break down. "Free Trade" Movements such as NAFTA and the WTO recognize this but they only give freedom to money. At the same time they restrict the freedom of people to make regulations that regulate business for the common good. and to look for work wherever the jobs may be.
We should be moving towards a world in which people can move freely around the world in a community of nations. It should be a world in which people can live a good life and have good jobs, not just in a few rich countries but everywhere. In a world in which everybody enjoys economic as well as political freedom and justice, we will all be happier and more secure. It may not be easy to get there but at the least, we should head in that direction.