Monday, July 27, 2009

Final Personal Reflections on Immigration

Once years ago, I found myself the only passenger in an airport shuttle, stuck for over an hour in Denver rush hour traffic. I struck up a conversation with the driver, who turned out to be a former member of Bangladesh’s Parliament. He had fled for his life in the turmoil of 1973, and many years, many countries, and many personal tragedies later, had wound up driving the airport limousine I was riding in. After hearing his heartbreaking and courageous story, I asked him what it was like to spend his days driving around us Americans, so ignorant of world affairs, so unlikely to comprehend his life.

“Americans,” he replied, “are a warm-hearted people.”

I have treasured his words – and I have often doubted them. At the conclusion of this RCP series on immigration, his words come back to me, and they resonate as truer than I dared to hope.

When I began the series, based on previous experience I braced myself for a barrage of hate mail. That is not what we have received.

We have received calls from people wanting to donate furniture to the Cataneos – a migrant family we profiled that owns no furniture but their inflatable mattresses and cardboard boxes. One Thrift Store activist has since arranged storage space for a sort of “lending library” of used furniture for Ripon’s migrant workers.

We have received calls detailing what Ripon’s Food Pantry and Thrift Store can offer, and encouraging needy immigrant families to stop in.

Emmanual United Methodist Church and the Prairie Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship have committed funds to “adopting” for a month a local immigrant family in crisis. Several individuals have simply handed me cash and asked me to pass it on to any needy immigrant family.

A volunteer committee that tries to help English language learners better integrate into the community recently arranged for the translation and printing of a Spanish language version of the city calendar, which is being distributed by area factories and the School District at no cost to taxpayers.

One of the profiled immigrants received a call from an unknown person simply welcoming her to the community. And countless people have stopped me on the street and said, “I had no idea!” and “Is there anything I can do to help?”

To my mind, the response has shown Ripon at its best: a community of civic-minded, compassionate folks who, when presented with the facts, and real stories of real people, respond from the heart – and with the wallet, organizational savvy and a roll-up-the-sleeves spirit.

But immigration isn’t easy, and it isn’t costless. Several readers wrote or called to point out problems they have experienced with immigration.
One reader wrote to say how hard it was to work on a production line with people talking about you in another language. (I asked some Spanish speaking workers about this, and they responded, “Why do they always think we’re talking about them? We’re not!”) But her point is legitimate: it is hard to adapt to these kinds of changes, and the immigrants aren’t the only ones who can end up feeling like aliens.

I believe there are two things we could do that would reduce this cost of immigration: teach English to immigrants, and learn foreign languages ourselves. Unfortunately, the US has not made a broad commitment to providing immigrants with English Language Learner (ELL) classes. Where they are available, they often have long waiting lists and may be too expensive for many. Canada, in contrast, which has a substantially higher immigration rate than the US (over 20% of their population is foreign-born, compared with our 12%), enrolls many new immigrants in full-time language classes at state expense until they are functional in English.

Compounding the problem, vanishingly few Americans achieve competence, much less fluency, by studying a foreign language in school – unlike much of the rest of the world. Learning another language won’t only help in dealing with immigrants at home – it will literally open up a world of other opportunities.

Many Americans object that it is up to immigrants to learn our language, not up to us to learn theirs. It helps to recall our history. At the turn of the century, Minnesota printed sample ballots in eight languages. In Wisconsin, farm input and equipment dealers often required their employees to be functional in German, and many deeds to Wisconsin farms were written in German. Doubts about the wisdom of all this were common then too: when a Wisconsin paper tried to publish a weekly supplement in Norwegian, it received so much hate mail it dropped the plan. The Norwegians and Germans, as have the vast majority immigrants throughout history, learned English by the second generation.

Language barriers are tough, no doubt about it. But there is no shortage of successful models to follow in addressing this challenge.

Another reader, a former Ripon resident, called from Arizona to point out a problem in his area: immigrant day-laborer pick-up sites in his city that generate crime and disorder.

I believe our immigration policies bear some of the blame for this problematical situation, which is mirrored in larger cities around the nation. If we will not let workers in legally to take the jobs they know are here, they will come illegally. If crossing the border illegally is physically arduous and life-risking (and increasingly it is), those who do it will tend to be young, desperate men unencumbered by wives and children. Being illegal, they are less likely to get steady employment, so they will seek informal employment.

Large numbers of young, desperate, illegal, single men without steady employment is no recipe for fighting crime or achieving social stability. But this is behavior our system and our economic reality together encourage. We could choose to do it differently.

Another correspondent mentioned poor wages and working conditions in a local factory. This too is partly a function of the fact that a high percentage of our immigrants are undocumented (about 30% of Mexicans nationwide, and a smaller but significant number from other nations). No one drags down wages and working conditions like an undocumented worker living in the shadows, afraid to stand up for rights she doesn’t have.

If we legally admitted a more realistic number of workers, while continuing some level of border enforcement, we could reduce the impact of illegal immigration on low-end wages and working conditions.

More legal work visas wouldn’t fully solve another problem though: the stratum of the American workforce that is competing directly with unskilled immigrants. A part of this labor force is, according to many frustrated employers, barely employable. Many are scarcely better educated than their counterparts from Third World countries, and they lack the ambition and the willingness to work long hours for low pay that make many immigrant laborers so attractive to employers.

If our workers are going to succeed, they will do so mostly by climbing higher up the economic ladder, not by trying to restrict entry to its bottom rungs. American workers will need to offer something that immigrants often can’t, such as excellent communication skills -- preferably in both English and another economically useful language. They will need to use their educational opportunities to go head to head with the global elite in computer science, engineering, and other quantitative and scientific fields increasingly dominated by other nationalities.

And our schools will need to help them do this. Unfortunately, in international comparisons our high school graduates have among the lowest levels of knowledge and skills in the developed world. Our schools have a tough row to hoe. It is difficult for teachers to counteract the failures of our families and society at large. But we do our kids no favors by letting them graduate unable to compete in either attitude or skills with those who are eager to fill any slots in the world economy that we cannot or will not fill.

Conclusion: Reasonable people can disagree about precisely how many immigrants we can cope with successfully. What is clear is that Ripon has coped better than many other communities. The credit for this can be broadly shared, by our schools, our churches, Ripon College, our civic groups, our library, our hospital, our law enforcement professionals, and by a civic culture that inspires people to roll up their sleeves, attend a committee meeting, write a check, find an interpreter, wade in and “git ‘er done.”

Ripon has one more crucial resource in its favor: a public forum where we can report, discuss, argue, complain, celebrate, and inform each other as a community. My heartfelt thanks and gratitude go to the Ripon Commonwealth Press for its commitment to providing this forum – even when this series morphed from six articles of 1200 words apiece to thirteen articles, mostly over 2000 words each!

I know from my many dozens of conversations with you all in recent weeks just how many people have read these articles. My understanding has been enriched by the responses and thoughtful challenges I’ve received from you, and I believe we are all better educated on this important issue as a result of the dialogue.

I also know from my many conversations about this series with people outside of Ripon that we are lucky. People in Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton, Madison, and in other states are astounded by the column inches that the RCP has devoted to this series, and the degree to which this newspaper has served the journalistic ideal of giving voice to local people and promoting informed debate on issues that matter. To a one, friends in other cities have said, “Our paper wouldn’t do that.” Tim and Ian have supported this project 110% since day one. I could not have asked for more committed support – or more ink! Which means I need to shut up now! Thank you, Tim and Ian, for restoring my faith in the power and importance of a good, old-fashioned, small-town newspaper.

Kat Griffith
February 2008

Sidebar: Eight proposals for reforming our immigration law

Proposal 1: Grant many more work visas for unskilled workers. We currently give out 5,000 per year when our economy generates 400-500,000 unskilled jobs per year. We need the workers, they need the jobs, and denying this economic reality results not in secure borders or a strong economy, but a flood of illegal workers living lives of insecurity, and huge numbers of American employers who have become cynical law breakers to keep their doors open. We don’t need “get tough” rhetoric – we need “get real” laws. We need to restore respect for the law, by passing laws that are worthy of our respect. Only then will we move beyond the hypocrisy of passing laws that we cannot or will not enforce.

Proposal 2: Develop a path to legal residence or citizenship for law-abiding undocumented workers. I suggest neither a broad amnesty nor the punitively high fines and deportations currently being proposed. We cannot expect a worker supporting a family on $7/hour to pay many thousands of dollars in fines. Furthermore, basing the fines on the number of years an individual has lived here illegally will put the greatest burden on those who are most likely to have learned English, set down roots, and educated their children in our schools. Why make life hardest for those who have made the greatest investment -- and in whom we have made the greatest investment? Similarly, requiring undocumented immigrants to return home to apply for entry is extraordinarily costly and disruptive, and serves no purpose for them or us. If this is the only way to obtain legal status, most will refuse the invitation. The path to legalization should involve productive, meaningful steps, not pointless ones that waste everyone’s resources.

Proposal 3: Increase the number of visas given to high skill workers, and streamline and speed up the application process. Bill Gates himself testified before Congress that our current restrictive quotas were a danger to America’s economy and should be abolished. Microsoft is moving some operations to Vancouver to escape our burdensome immigration system. Highly skilled entrepreneurs are increasingly setting up shop in other countries when they used to routinely come here. This is a huge and utterly avoidable loss.

Proposal 4: Make student visas generally available to those who are accepted by American colleges or universities and who are able to show sufficient financial means. We have long taken our world dominance in higher education for granted, but current trends suggest we should not. While international students have a much better experience of our immigration system than anyone else I spoke to, many visa denials seem arbitrary, and it is very difficult for students from some countries to obtain visas. This hurts us in several ways: we miss out on the gifts the international students bring, we force them to take their business elsewhere, and we lose the chance to mold them as ambassadors for some of the values we hold dear.

Proposal 5: Expedite legal resident status for undocumented immigrants who obtain degrees from accredited institutions. Surprisingly, quite a few undocumented students attend college despite the formidable obstacles they face, including lack of access to state or federal aid and loan programs. Today’s undocumented students face especially difficult prospects: large debts to pay off and rapidly narrowing job opportunities given greater workplace enforcement of immigration laws. It is cruel, shortsighted and wasteful to deny them the widest possible legal opportunities to put their hard-won education to work.

Proposal 6: Re-design guest worker programs so that guest workers are not bound to a specific employer as a condition of their legal status. The current arrangement leads to widespread abuses of workers who are virtual slaves to the employers that sponsor them. Some desperate would-be guest workers commit to paying labor contractors thousands of dollars for the opportunity to come to the US to work, and then earn less than they paid to come. These cross-border abuses and forms of human trafficking are difficult and costly to police. Making workers free to find their own employment and leave exploitative employers is their best protection.

Proposal 7: Design a mechanism for sharing federal tax revenue with state and local governments. Most immigrants, including the undocumented, pay most of the same taxes as other Americans, and studies suggest that on average they more than pay their way over the course of their lifetimes. (Many actually pay more than their share, as they do not file for the refunds for which they are eligible, they pay into Social Security which they cannot access, and their taxes support programs for which they are not eligible.) However, the taxes they pay go disproportionately to the federal government, while most of the services they consume are provided locally. Communities with high numbers of immigrants can thus experience a substantial and unjust financial burden. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Proposal 8: Fight terrorism with intelligence, not through immigration laws. Most experts agree that treating Mexican border crossers as potential terrorists leads to a serious misallocation of anti-terrorism resources. The vast majority of terrorists are caught through careful intelligence work, not by immigration officials. Burdening our immigration system with the expectation that it can weed out a handful of potential terrorists from the millions of legitimate applications it receives is unrealistic, and causes us to spend our scarce resources in efforts that net very few, if any, “catches.” This doesn’t make us safer. It does impose large burdens on would-be immigrants, their families, their universities, their employers, and our economy – as well as our harassed, under-staffed, under-funded, poorly coordinated immigration system itself.

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