Written by Stephen Balkaran
While returning from a recent trip to Ellis Island, I had an opportunity to reflect on the 12 million immigrants that shaped and continue to define this great nation we call America. Yet, despite the notion of being a nation built by immigrants, America has always had a love-hate relationship with a nation that was built by immigrants. The 21st century love-hate version of this relationship is no different and has become a divisive political issue. I am always disappointed when critics question why comprehensive immigration reform matters. Seldom, do I argue with such critics, but given the interrelatedness of immigration and our nation, I do feel compelled to discuss the sad history of the treatment of immigrants.
The national dilemma of how to secure our borders has been one of our fundamental policy challenges for the last 20 years, not only for our national security interest and the war on terror but to also reduce the inflow of immigrants whom we often deem “illegals” or “undocumented.” The conclusion of the 44th and the commencement of the 45th presidency have again left a nation of immigrants scrambling to come to terms with comprehensive immigration reform and its ramifications. The American values and rich tradition in welcoming immigrants has been tested as our democracy now seeks to come to common ground on this ever important but controversial public policy. Yet this debate threatens to take away the best of who we are and fuel the ambivalence of what we can become as a society.
Comprehensive immigration reform has social, cultural and economic implications for America’s future that most of us cannot foresee. The status of some 12 million undocumented immigrants who have already shaped and defined a new American landscape remains in limbo as our politicians try to reach a compromise on how we address immigration reform. The question remains: how do we address this issue without incurring the backlash from human rights activists, American citizens and politicians. Also, can Congress pass legislation that is both constitutional and humane? There hasn’t been a time our country’s great history that a debate on immigration divided the nation as it has recently, leaving us searching for an American identity as to who we are and what we stand for as a nation of immigrants. This debate has left the United States of America divided along racial, ethnic, political lines never seen before and has touched the conscience of the nation. The debate has become such a divisive issue that policy-making has been defined by politics in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.
As history reminds us, undocumented immigrants have become the most convenient scapegoat for America’s social problems, thus anti-immigrant rhetoric has become prevalent and the norm throughout our political spectrum. Center to the immigration debate is amnesty as a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million human beings who are often referred to as “illegals” or “undocumented immigrants.” Yet despite this abrasive terminology, no human being is illegal. The issue of comprehensive immigration reform is aimed at all immigrants and Americans alike but focuses specifically on America’s flourishing Hispanic population and their socio-economic-political importance. The “Browning of America” and the continuing reshaping of America by Hispanics continue to define who we are and illustrate the best of what we can become as a nation of immigrants.
The comprehensive immigration reform debate goes far beyond the typical immigration debates on the loss of jobs, drain on our social system, criminality etc.; it now includes the debate “Building a Wall.” The economic, political and social clout of current immigrants is far more beneficial to the nation than our media, immigration critics and politicians point them out to be. Whatever the debates are, our American values, tradition of welcoming immigrants and our Americanism will be tested on how we approach and legislate new comprehensive immigration reform laws. This complicated but imperative public policy must be achieved by the new presidential administration for a number of reasons. It is imperative that this legislation be done in a humane, sensitive and compelling way that reflect the American values of embracing diversity and inclusion of all. Embodied in this reform legislation, one must be cautious, compassionate and not forget the watchwords of our immigrant history and our nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
First and foremost, comprehensive immigration reform must be done in a way that defines us as a nation that still champions human rights and diversity. As the leader of the democratic free world, history reminds us of our human rights violations: slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Mexican Repatriation Act and last but definitely not least, Japanese Internment. Hence, can we conclude that American history is doomed to repeat itself? Human rights become the center of the debates. How do we address families who have lived here undocumented for decades, their children who grew up in American communities who have established friends, loyalty and community relationships? We must be cautious and vigilant on how we plan to address America’s greatest resource—immigrants; it must be done with an approach filled with love and compassion. The breaking up and removal of families who have solidified their roots here is un-American, unconstitutional and it is not what we stand for as a country that professes tolerance, diversity and acceptance.
As we delve into the deep waters of American patriotism, the cultural backlash is based on the philosophy that many of the undocumented immigrants are unpatriotic towards America’s culture and refuse to be American. Hence, one would question what it is to be an American; is there a threshold to gauge our Americanism? This debate has not only generated dialogue about the continued role that Americanism plays in our society but has also posed the question of whether undocumented immigrants are truly committed to the “Land of the free and the home of the brave.” The issue should NOT be whether undocumented immigrants are loyal to America. That question was answered when undocumented men and women signed up and served in America’s military, fighting to protect and promote democracy throughout the world for a country that has remained uncommitted to them. It must be noted that some 38,000 military officials serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not American citizens. In fact, history has forgotten that Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez became one of the first casualties in Iraq; even though he did come to America illegally and died serving America’s cause. Hence, the question is not whether undocumented immigrants are loyal to America but whether America has lived up to its rich tradition of welcoming immigrants in a fair and impartial way.
Secondly, the debate has turned to the economic impact of these undocumented immigrants on American society. These economic arguments have been debunked by many economic pundits on the grounds that undocumented immigrants do not undercut wages nor are they a drain on social services. They, in fact, don’t take jobs that would otherwise go to Americans. The majority of undocumented immigrants are unskilled and thus never pose any economic threat for skilled jobs that are secured by legal residents or American citizens. In fact, economists have stated that undocumented workers actually compliment the economy and are the driving force behind our nation’s economic growth and prosperity.
In an interesting report released by the Social Security Administration in 2013, Stephen Goss, Chief Actuary for the Office, claimed that undocumented workers contribute about $15 billion a year to Social Security through payroll taxes. On the flip side, Goss also commented that these undocumented immigrants only receive about $1 billion in benefits since many of them are not eligible to receive these benefits that they paid into through payroll taxes. What is more astonishing, Goss noted in an interview for the New York Times that undocumented immigrants have contributed up to $300 billion, or nearly 10 percent, of the $2.7 trillion of the nation’s Social Security Trust Fund. In other words, their economic contribution and benefits to society far outreach many of the criticism undocumented immigrants face. The need to reach a humane solution on this immigration nightmare will ultimately benefit all Americans. Hence, there is a need to create a legal path to 12 million residents enabling them to come out of the shadows of despair and allow them to continue contributing to the American economic pie in a fair and just way that’s benefits all.
Thirdly, the immigration debate has now generated so much division in our society that it has become the “civil rights debate of 21st century.” Whatever the arguments are, many Americans have forgotten their commitment to the watch words of this great nation “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Immigrants who graced our country have played and will continue to play an important role in our country’s rich diverse culture. Yet we still forget about this contribution many immigrant groups make to this great country. Despite this success, many other immigrant groups have failed to step up to support our Hispanic brothers and sisters with the recent immigration debate. What differentiates Hispanics from other previous immigrant groups is their economic, social, political power to change and define a new America.
Last and by no means least is the argument that illegal immigration represents the breaking and outright disregard of American laws. We are a nation of laws. I do agree that our laws are to be respected, acknowledged and obeyed by all. As American patriot, reverend and civil rights activist Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. noted, there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. King further elaborated one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, “but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Remember, that slavery, racism, removal of Native Americans from their land and Jim Crow segregation in American society was LEGAL, and King’s non-violence movement for civil rights and the Abolitionist movement in southern states were considered ILLEGAL in the eyes of the law. Seldom do I ever pause and critique our legal process, but Americans openly voiced their disgust on undocumented immigrants’ willingness to break our laws. Yet we refused to critique unjust laws and customs that haunt our national history. It becomes paradoxical in our society when many of our laws that have perpetuated many of our ignorant views and hatred towards others are obeyed and respected throughout our history. When we openly advocate obeying and disobeying laws that are there to maintain law, order and stability but at the same time fail to question the validity of those laws, we ultimately become immune to the hatred we create.
As an example, as long as there is criticism on undocumented immigrants for not paying their fair share of taxes, but at the same time Americans remain silent as the rich exploit “legal” loopholes to avoid paying federal taxes, we have the right to question the integrity of our laws.
America is only as great as the doors and opportunities we open to others. Success in America is not determined by our ethnic background or our native language but our commitment and dedication that are so much part of our past and present immigrants. •
Stephen Balkaran is an Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at Central CT State University.