Archive for Immigration Issues

We must stop the negative immigration rage!

e pluribus unumLatino immigrants generally come to the U.S. driven by a strong desire to provide a better life for their family. Their drive is not that different from the motivating factors that impelled the ancestors of almost everyone in this country. The strength of the immigrants’ spirit helps them combat what amounts to insurmountable odds against them. Immigrants are faced with an incredible emotional turmoil that stems from being separated from their family, friends, culture, and heritage. This separation anxiety is always difficult, and it is often hard to understand by those who have not experienced it first hand. Immigrants endure the turmoil and forge ahead in pursuit of the American Dream. For new American immigrants the anxiety feelings are compounded by the fact that the immigration laws in the U.S. no longer have an open door policy. And even when Latinos come in with a legal immigration status, they still have to endure the overwhelming negative social pressure that surrounds the subject of immigration in the 21st Century.

The pursuit of happiness and a new life in the United States has defined this country since its inception. Seeking the so called American Dream is what being American is all about. Immigration defines our American culture. It has shaped the American way of life and has created the unique diversity that is so highly cherished in the United States. Even our country’s motto, “e pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) symbolizes the importance we place in coming together from different places to form one country. Yet; immigration is no longer popular with many Americans; and the thought of people coming to the U.S. “illegally” infuriates the masses.

Latinos are often attacked just because they are perceived as criminals from an immigration standpoint. Never before in this country have immigrants who lacked the appropriate immigration documentation been commonly referred to as “illegals.” The strong feelings harbored against “illegal aliens” (a truly horrendous term) have become so pervasive that some people who are otherwise very inclusive and welcoming towards others become quickly enraged when I bring up the subject of immigration. The rage is not always rational; in fact, most of what infuriates people (like the so-called negative effect on the U.S. economy) is simply not true (see an earlier post here). But I’m not trying to generate more hate mail on this subject (I get enough of that); my intention is to show how all of the negativity surrounding immigration is really counterproductive and ends up hurting us all.

Yesterday I was driving and almost got into an accident. I became very enraged at a driver who was clearly doing something illegal. I was livid! But my thoughts against this person were irrational; in retrospect I realize that he was only trying to circumvent a truck that was blocking the intersection. If I knew the person driving that car I would not have even gotten upset. Car rage happens because it is easy to disconnect from the person driving the other car. I find that when I make eye contact with another driver they are more likely to be nice and become human again. Why am I talking about this? Because car rage creates a very serious problem on the roads; and I feel that the illegal immigration rage is often just as irrational and is creating a very serious problem in our society.

It is easy for people to believe the negative buzz regarding immigration and become enraged; but like it is with car rage, I find that people react very differently when they personally know an undocumented immigrant or family. It is easy to support immediate deportation and harsh laws against undocumented immigrants when you are not connected to them; in fact, it is easy to think of them as criminals. But it is much more difficult to do so when it affects someone who you personally know and/or care about. In my work I interview many undocumented Latinos and have heard many immigration horror stories. Try explaining to a child why their parents were taken away from him because they were here illegally. In a recent interview, a U.S. born Latino teenager with a severe medical condition told me about how his mother had to go back to Colombia. In tears he said: “I had to stay because I would die in Colombia… my mother is not a criminal, she was just trying to be here for me.” I can fill the pages of many books with similar stories. As a country we need to realize that these immigrants are no different in their motivation to be here as any other prior immigration group. If we are able to see past the immigration rage we will realize that these people are not “criminals” at all; they are hard working families trying to become American like all other immigrants did.

The negativity towards immigration, be it warranted or not, is not good for our country. It fuels segregation, racism, prejudice, and discrimination. It affects everyone and does nothing to resolve the issues at hand. Like it is with car rage, we need to take a moment to make eye contact and become human again.

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Why are there so many Americans against Latino immigration?

The U.S. Census reports that the number of American Indians or Alaska natives represents 1.5% of the total population of the United States. The other 98.5% of the American people must, by definition, be composed of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. In a country where almost everyone comes from somewhere else, why are we so insistent on restricting immigration? Who decided that the people already here “legally” are okay to stay, but anyone else does not belong? Unfortunately, most of the resistance is directed towards Latino immigration because we are the newer immigrant group; yet, if you analyze this a bit, Latinos are perhaps more entitled to this land. Please hold on the casting of stones for a minute or two.

Most of the new immigrants coming to our country are Latinos from Mexico and Central America; and most of them end up settling in the Southwest. If you take a good look at the typical Mexican or Central American immigrant you cannot help but notice that they have dark skin, dark hair, and other features that are consistent with the characteristics of the American natives. Many are, in fact, direct descendants of two great native Indian civilizations: the Aztecs and the Mayas. In addition, most of what is now the Southwest was annexed to the U.S. in the 1840s under the so called Manifest Destiny- a mistaken and now outdated belief in which the U.S. was said to be “divinely ordained” to expand its territory by taking over land. Interestingly, most of the land that was annexed under Manifest Destiny was already inhabited by the people we now call Mexicans. Why are we so perturbed today in seeing Mexicans crossing over a border that we imposed on them to reach a land that was originally theirs?

I know, I know, I’m simplifying quite a bit; but I’m just trying to make a point. In reality, the conquest of the West was much more convoluted and one can argue that we were defending Mexicans against other oppressive conquerors like Spain and France. It is also a known fact that Mexicans were on both sides of the conflict. The Battle of the Alamo, for example, was fought by Mexicans on both sides… but I digress. What I’m trying to say here is that if we study the reasons behind the strong feelings against illegal immigration with our analytical side of the brain we may conclude that the only reason why anyone in the U.S. would be opposed to immigration is because it does not make economic sense. However, many analysts have concluded that illegal immigration does not pose a negative effect on the U.S. economy.

The most respected recent studies show that most Americans would notice little difference in their paychecks if illegal immigrants suddenly disappeared from the United States. That’s because most Americans don’t directly compete with illegal immigrants for jobs. … Illegal immigrants seem to have very little impact on unemployment rates. Undocumented workers certainly do take jobs that would otherwise go to legal workers. But undocumented workers also create demand that leads to new jobs. They buy food and cars and cell phones, they get haircuts and go to restaurants. On average, there is close to no net impact on the unemployment rate. … There are places in the United States where illegal immigration has big effects (both positive and negative). But economists generally believe that when averaged over the whole economy, the effect is a small net positive. Harvard’s George Borjas says the average American’s wealth is increased by less than 1 percent because of illegal immigration. (Excerpts from Q&A: Illegal Immigrants and the U.S. Economy by Adam Davidson – NPR /

I propose that the negative feelings against illegal immigration have little to do with what can be surmised using our analytical brain. My contention is that these strong opinions against illegal immigration are being fueled by an emotional response to the way Latino immigration is affecting the American culture. People have difficulty coping with change and it is always hard to simply accept unsolicited change. The Latino culture has grown very rapidly and many Americans feel that their own way of life is being threatened by what foreigners are imposing. And, as I mentioned on my prior post, immigrants are no longer melting into one amalgamated pot. Ignorance regarding the Hispanic culture also results in fear, prejudice, and discrimination.

So, if you are Hispanic and people say to you “why don’t you go back to where you came from?…,” remember that they may not be rejecting you as much as they are trying to protect themselves; but then again, you may have to answer as Paul Rodriguez did in one of his stand-up comedy skits- Do you mean El Paso?

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“U.S. Hispanics need to learn to speak English!” Says who?

Many people get very upset when they hear of someone who has been in this country for years and does not speak any English; and the failure to learn English appears to be increasingly more prevalent among Hispanics. It seems to be an issue that strikes a chord with many Americans. “Why are they not making an effort to learn to speak English like all other immigrants did?” I venture to say that the main reason why many Latinos are not learning English as fast as others did before is because our society no longer requires it. That’s right; my contention is that, as a society, we give Latinos permission to keep their culture and language; and consequently, learning English becomes much more difficult than what other immigrants experienced years ago.

When other big immigration groups came into this country a few generations ago the situation was very different from what it is today. Many early immigrants made the hard decision to come to America with an understanding that they were breaking ties with their old country. Learning a new culture and a new language was not a choice. Our society was a true melting pot and immigrants were expected to fully assimilate into the American culture. They complied. Ever wonder why the children and grandchildren of the Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the late 1800s never learned how to speak Italian? These early immigrants understood the importance of becoming American in every respect; and that included speaking only English. Speaking Italian was not important; in fact, it was detrimental in a society that expected assimilation- but things have changed; and assimilation is no longer expected. We are no longer melting into one pot because we no longer believe in that antiquated idea of the melting pot.

It amazes me how the same people who are troubled when everyone around them is speaking Spanish will turn to me and remark on how “important” it is that I teach my children Spanish. “You should speak Spanish to them at home,” they will say. While I wholeheartedly agree that it is important for Latinos to teach their children how to speak Spanish, I want to emphasize that this was never important before. The American society now understands that we live in a multicultural world and that knowing more than one language is beneficial. Our society now also supports (and even exalts) diversity. It is now considered appropriate to uphold and celebrate diversity, especially when it comes to culture and ethnicity. Forcing everyone to melt into one homogeneous pot is no longer considered appropriate.

While our country was founded on the idea of diversity, the practice of diversity was never as alive as it is today. With diversity comes not only permission to speak the language of our ancestors, but also the empowerment to maintain every aspect of our ethnicity. The American society promotes this understanding at many different levels. At a commercial level Latinos see most product labels and instructions written in English and Spanish; ATM machines ask us for our language of preference; and telephone companies insist that we keep in touch with our relatives in Latin America. From a government perspective most services are also offered and/or communicated in Spanish. At a community level there are hundreds of neighborhoods across the country were everyone speaks Spanish. Can someone in one of these neighborhoods get along perfectly well without ever having to learn English? Absolutely! Our society allows it.

We cannot as a society promote diversity and the use of the Spanish language and then wonder why some Latinos are having difficulty learning English. Everyone knows that it is much easier to learn a foreign language when you live in a foreign country and are immersed in a society that only speaks that language. In our society we speak English; but we also speak Spanish. For some Latinos learning English while living in a neighborhood where everyone speaks Spanish is akin to an American student taking a foreign language in school and not grasping it because nobody around them speaks that language. We need to stop pretending that our society expects Latinos to speak English when everything is laid out to make it easy for these new immigrants not to learn the language.

NOTE: Please do not take this opinion to mean that I do not feel that Hispanics should learn the English language. I believe that speaking English in our society is extremely important and encourage everyone in our Latino community to make every effort to learn the language. Being able to speak English opens the door to a myriad of new opportunities for success and paves the way to achieving the always cherished American dream.

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