We Are Everywhere
A nation of immigrants responds to a new reality.
Thursday, April 6, 2006
It put some people’s teeth on edge, seeing all those kids skipping school last week, marching around, waving all those Mexican flags. It pushed some buttons. I mean—look at them. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Aren’t these kids in American public schools? Shouldn’t they be grateful? And here they are, making demands.
National pride is fine, it’s downright American—nobody complained when the Irish marched down Fifth Avenue in green two weeks earlier, as they do every year for St. Patty’s—but this was different. To people who see immigration as a crisis, this thing of the kids marching—this was symbolic of a problem.
It’s like when you’re scanning around the radio dial, all that banda music, all that salsa, and now this new Spanglish hip-hop. What is this stuff? Same thing with retail stores that don’t even bother with English signage. It’s like you aren’t even in America. And all of the Latino workers you see everywhere you go—never mind the fields, we’re talking every construction site, every restaurant. These immigrants: they really are everywhere. It’s like they’re taking over.
And here they are, marching in the streets. In LA, in San Jose, in Salinas, millions of them. And the kids—skipping school. To many people, good people, it was almost an outrage.
I get that, but my reaction was different. I was moved to see that these students were unafraid to show their pride. I was inspired by their gumption, and I could understand their anger.
By protesting the House of Representatives’ move to criminalize illegal immigrants, these kids were taking a courageous stand. Most of them were born here; but they were standing up for their families, for their parents, who maybe weren’t born here. The way I look at it, they were taking a risk to demonstrate what it means to be American citizens.
Nevertheless, I understand why some people are upset. I understand that we are talking here not just about immigration, but about illegal immigration. This isn’t like with the Irish.
My own grandparents were immigrants—Irish, English and Swedish. They had to deal with anti-immigrant prejudices—but they came through Ellis Island. They were here legally. That’s not what all of these protests are about. This is about people who snuck in.
The number of illegal immigrants in this country has grown by almost 50 percent since 2000, from 8.4 million to 12 million, according to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center. We are witnessing a historic change.
As it happens, foreign-born residents make up a smaller percentage of the population today than they did a century ago, when my grandparents arrived. But still, there are far more illegal immigrants living among us than ever before.
And the fact is, this is a bad deal. It’s a bad deal for the immigrants themselves, who are forced to live as outlaws. It’s a bad deal for their employers, however much they benefit from a workforce that is disempowered. It’s a bad deal for American-born workers who have to compete for jobs.
Whatever our opinions about the recent protests, and about the issue in general, we have to recognize that change in US immigration policy is needed.
Over the past couple of weeks, two plans have emerged for dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. The plan that came out of the Republican House two weeks ago is a pure reaction to the fear and anger of Americans who feel threatened by recent immigration trends—it is a paranoid and punitive bill that, we can hope, will go nowhere.
A Senate bill, carried by Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican John McCain, and nominally supported by President George Bush, has a lot of problems, but has elements of a real solution. It would allow some workers already here (not enough of them) to achieve legal status, and allow some of them to apply for citizenship. It would allow people who are only here for work to remain here legally. It would conceivably bring workers’ families together.
Sen. Kennedy’s argument in favor of the bill makes no grandiose claims: “It’s long past time to put the underground economy above ground, and recognize the reality of immigrants in our workforce,” he said. “By bringing immigrants out of the shadows so they can earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, we are protecting American workers’ rights and wages, too.”
The Kennedy-McCain bill will make nobody happy. Not the students who marched last week, nor the good Americans who were offended by their cause. It is a good start, though.