Immigrants — legal or not — must not be marginalized

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At a conference for community improvement last week, I heard the impressive Congressman Danny K. Davis (D–Ill.) give the keynote address. In his deep, melodious voice, he recited some of the lines from Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

The poem, written a century ago, was intended as homage to the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed droves of immigrants coming in from the Old World. It struck me how ironic it was that Congressman Davis was uttering these lines at the same time many of his colleagues were literally three blocks away, deliberating over how to discourage newcomers from entering the country and how to punish some who had already arrived.

Immigration probably has not been such a hot political topic since the time of Emma Lazarus, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants stepped on the shores of New York and San Francisco each day. Then, as now, they were looking for an escape from their native homes’ poverty and persecution; and then, as now, those who considered themselves “truly” American were panicking over the various negative effects immigrants would have on the country’s economy, social hierarchy, and identity.

Today, of course, the argument is mainly focused on illegal immigration, which poses its own set of moral and political conundrums. The Urban Institute and Pew Hispanic Center estimate that there are between 11 and 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, and more are coming every day, defying border patrol, customs, walls, fences, water, “coyotes” (human smugglers), and possibly fatal dehydration in the desert.

These immigrants risk lives to come into a country where they will most likely be clustered into poor neighborhoods or rural migrant-worker barracks where they will take jobs sewing zippers into jeans for two cents apiece or picking cucumbers for a dollar a crate. This work, which pays poorly and offers few benefits, is strangely, sadly vital to our economy, and makes these immigrants dangerous, dissident, and undesirable, according to some of the government officials who take their taxes. Yes, illegal immigrants still pay taxes — and receive no government benefits in return. What’s wrong with this picture?

In the past week, the hotly contested immigration reform bill has raised the ire of conservatives, liberals, and many of the immigrants being considered in the bill’s proposals. It has also offered a unique look at the peculiar prejudices Americans still cling to, and it has also offered a glimpse of the sweeping changes this country is undergoing.

As far as prejudices go, xenophobia and racism have raised their ugly heads at the Capitol, poorly disguised as concerns for the economy and American workers. There may be some politicians who truly hold economic concerns, but consider the following remarks from Congressman Bob Beauprez (R–Colo.):

“My fear is that if we continue down this path that the Senate has established, that we will have created the biggest magnet ever. It would be like a dinner bell, ‘Come one, come all.’ ”

And my personal favorite: Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R–Calif.) suggested that illegal immigrants would be effectively discouraged from entering the country if we gave agricultural jobs to prisoners. “Let the prisoners pick the fruits,” Rohrabacher said. “We can do it without bringing in millions of foreigners.” Yes, Mr. Rohrabacher, even criminals are better than those doggone freeloading foreigners, as long as the prisoners are corn-fed Americans. No sarcasm should be spared in responding to this man and his ill-informed comments.

Get a clue, gentlemen. When did America stop being the land of opportunity? When did we get the right to exclude immigrants when we ourselves are the direct descendants of them? And what are you going to do when recent immigrants become America’s principal voting block (which will be happening very soon)?

Representatives Beauprez and Rohrabacher and their supporters will probably tell you that we pay dearly for hosting our neighbors, whether it be through suburban sprawl, overcrowding, or unfair competition in the job market. But take a look at a day laborer who lines up on the street each morning hoping for work, who leads an unstable and transient life as a migrant farm worker, or who sleeps in a crowded house of strangers, alone and far from his family. Stripped of most of his possessions, his dignity, and his rights, it becomes increasingly hard to argue that the more fortunate native-born are getting the short end of the stick.

Illegal immigrants are not parasites. They are men and women who are looking for a way out of poverty and repression, and they are willing to do anything for it. Many of them plan to make enough money to support their families and then return home; many of them wish to become citizens with all the rights and duties that citizenship entails.

These people cannot be marginalized. The rather thrilling immigrant protests of the past two weeks have shown us that this is an increasingly diverse country — it is estimated that soon almost 50 percent of our country will be non-Anglo-Saxon, most of them foreign-born — with voices as powerful as anyone else’s. And they have power — real power — to shape and change policy. Such is evidenced in their impact on the immigration bill, which had its more restrictive provisions (such as punishing immigrants already here and punishing those who assisted them) curtailed.

The power of people’s opinions and their effect on law and government is what makes the United States unique. In making their opinions heard, immigrants have proved that they are really and truly American, regardless of whether or not they’re tabulated on the national census. Let’s hope that those on Capitol Hill keep this in mind as they further shape immigration policy, and ignore prejudice in favor of keeping the doors open for those who yearn to breathe free.