|May 3, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Twelve Million People Can’t Be Illegal
Suddenly we have an immigration crisis. Our skilled purveyors of public hypocrisy have been doing themselves proud. Bills are sponsored from both Sides of the Aisle; flashbulbs have been popping; triangulated statements leak like bilgewater from the corridors of power. Something clearly must be done. (When the times call for hypocrisy, President Bush truly leads by example: he is appalled that people would have the temerity — O, how can it be borne? — to sing the national anthem in Spanish.)
I love the way this just occurred to people. I mean, for crying out loud, aren’t we a nation of immigrants? You remember, don’t you, from your high school history class, how waves of Puritans, convicts, Quakers, Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Chinese, Poles, Greeks, Puerto Ricans, came here, cheering at the first sight of the Statue of Liberty, bravely undergoing the brusque Ellis Island physical exam and hitting the street, without two dimes to rub together, to work toward a better life? As your textbook told the story, each wave of immigrants was treated shabbily, forced to work hard and live packed in filthy tenements — but slowly, painfully, out of scraps and leavings, they fashioned a makeshift bootstrap with which to pull themselves up; there was an essential nobility about those grandparents from far countries; they endured things nobody should have to face; the American Way owes them much. The high school text implies that nowadays things are not so tough, thank goodness — now we are a strong, enlightened nation with generous welfare-state protections and sensible immigration laws.
I remember a bit of an immigration crisis in New York City in the mid-1990s. A Chinese freighter ran aground off of Far Rockaways, stranding some 150 Chinese immigrants who had come to the New World in deplorable conditions in a cargo hold. Many died trying to swim for shore before the ship was dislodged. For a couple of weeks there was great hand-wringing in the city about what to do for these unfortunate pilgrims. We heard when they got released from hospitals, how many there were, what sweatshops they would probably end up in. We learned that they were preponderantly young men and that Chinese families would go into debt to pay the many thousands of dollars it would take to secure cargo-hold passage for their best wage-earner, who — if he survived the trip — would establish a toehold and send money home so other family members could emigrate. Such ships had been coming and going for some time, of course, and they still are. The only distinguishing feature of that one was the human-interest footage, which soon faded.
We have an “immigration crisis” in exactly the same way we had a “Negro crisis” when Rosa Parks finally refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. I mean, it didn’t just dawn on the folks in Montgomery (“Hey, wow, Rosa didn’t get up! Let’s have a bus boycott!”) and it didn’t just dawn on all those tens of thousands of immigrant workers to start marching for the most basic recognition of their humanity and dignity. No, they had their “eyes on the prize” — and with much to lose, they deemed that they might just have enough strength to give it a try, to peaceably assemble and petition for redress.
But, of course, they are “illegal” — we have to remember that, as the right-wing think-tankists on NPR have been reminding us. Affording these twelve million people amnesty, or clemency or even encouraging them with undue politeness would just encourage them, and that would be unjust to the millions of law-abiding folk waiting to come to this Great Country. What complete and utter rot! The people who have entered this country have been those who had the gumption and the desperation to do so, and they haven’t come to any warm welcome, either!
Immigrants take “our” jobs. Well, not exactly; now we learn that they take jobs “we” aren’t willing to do — some of them so distasteful, as Mexico’s President recently reminded us, that even African-Americans won’t do them. Yet immigrants will. Not only that, they will often do them for less than the Federal minimum wage, and send money back home at the end of the month while doing so! There are roughly three times as many undocumented aliens working in the United States than there are citizens working for the minimum wage. Yes, American workers have reason to be worried. Employers who hire “illegal” workers don’t have to pay for social security; they don’t have to provide any of the health- or safety-related equipment that is mandated for “legal” workers; they can pay in cash and avoid various hassles of overhead and accounting. A person who works 40 hours per week at minimum wage earns $10,712 in a year. The take-home amount must be reduced by $819, the employee’s contribution to social security and medicare — an amount which the employer has to match. Simple math tells us that an undocumented worker can take home the same amount of money, while saving the employer $1,638 per year, a discount of 14%! And, the supply of undocumented workers being bullish, I’d expect competition to bring that take-home figure down a bit. You just can’t argue with that kind of competition.
And when, my dear educated, progressive-minded reader, when is the last time YOU tried to make ends meet, keep clothes on your back, pay your rent, and send money home to your poor relatives on less than two hundred dollars a week? Yet they have the unmitigated gall to call these people “illegal”, is if they were criminals! Round ‘em up, detain ‘em, deport ‘em — except, woops, we don’t want to do that, do we? If we did, we’d be up to our miserable necks in “wage-price inflation”, wouldn’t we?
I remember a moment when once, as a young man, I was going through a sort of “Identity crisis”. I’d just had a bitter fight with a girlfriend and had stormed off down the railroad tracks, wondering who in the world I might ever somehow be. I sat on the side of a narrow railroad bridge over a river, and started going through the various items in my wallet: driver’s license, social security card, various little documents and messengers, wondering why they were all so important. Just at that moment a freight train came rumbling by, inches away from me. It was a very narrow bridge; there was nothing I could do but sit there til it went past, and I remember holding that little stack of ID cards by a narrow corner as they fluttered in the wind from the train. What if they all blew into the river? Would I cease to exist? What right had I to any of the things I’d been given, the college education, the health insurance, the Official Record of my place in the nation?
None. Really none at all. And neither does any worker deserve the danger and disprespect that the United States has been accepting, condoning, nudge-nudge wink-winking at for many decades. The “crisis” is nothing but the human-interest footage. Thousands and thousands of marching “illegal aliens” serve to remind us all that we live in a nation, we subscribe to an economic system, that has no interest whatever in the rights, the freedoms, the aspirations or the family lives of its least-paid workers.
So I say, welcome! Welcome to all who seek opportunity in this great, conflicted, sick, powerful, deeply troubled nation. The promised land of all immigrants in every age is a better life for their children. May your children be born in this country as citizens — and may your toil and courage inspire them to renew the dream of a free and just society. For although it is not your fault, and may be a mystery to you, “Americans” — the “legal” ones — are narcotized and bewildered with fear, and without your example, they may no longer be able to find their way.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
Can a Human Being Be Illegal?
Fred Foldvary on Immigration
First-Hand Report on The Minuteman Project
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