Monday, May 6, 2013

Immigration Reform and the Golden Door

The recent bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon is bound to inflame the immigration debate that has been going on in the country for years and that might be coming to a head as a compromise bill works its way through Congress. Opponents of immigration will see the bombing as another argument for limiting immigration, but even supporters of immigration will join in attempts to keep out undesirables.

The Wall St. Journal, for example, never tires of saying that we should open our doors but only to highly skilled workers, like physicists and engineers. Just recently Marco Rubio, a popular Florida senator who is himself the son of immigrants from Cuba, penned an op-ed in the Journal outlining the features of the proposed legislation. Among other things he stressed that the legislation was designed to encourage highly skilled immigrants to come to America.   Despite his own humble origins, Senator Rubio also wants to keep out the poor and uneducated.

But who is undesireable? I am a descendant of Italians who migrated to America over 100 years ago. Most of the immigrants who came in that great wave were poor and uneducated. Most of the Italian immigrants came from the south of Italy, the poorest and most backward region of that new country. Few had even a grade school education.

Although lacking in formal education they were intelligent and hard working. Significantly, most had a strong family and religious background that provided them with a sense of community in their new country. It’s true that the good, the bad, and the ugly can be found in any group of immigrants.  Like immigrants before and after Italians had their share of gangsters and criminals whose activities tainted the great majority who were hard working and law abiding.

For example, the activities of Italian anarchists or terrorists were well known at the time of the Great Migration. In the last decade of the nineteenth century Italian anarchists were responsible for the murders of the President of France, the Prime Minister of Spain, the Empress of Austria, and even King Umberto of Italy.

Nevertheless, the great majority prospered and their children quickly became assimilated. Today, their descendants play an integral role in the affairs of this country. Two descendants of these illiterate Italian immigrants now sit on our Supreme Court. Many others can be found in other high offices both public and private.

It is true that they were legal immigrants. They had to make their way through Ellis Island just like the Irish, the Germans, the Jews, the Poles, the Slovaks, and all the others who came through the so-called “Golden Door.” However, if these legal immigrants had come to this country after 1920 the great majority of them would have been illegal. What happened? Why did a country that had always kept its doors open to immigrants suddenly close them?

After the First World War a wave of prejudice and bigotry swept over this country that led politicians to severely restrict the flow of immigration. In addition to their poverty and lack of learning, most of the Italian immigrants were Catholic, and they were regarded as ignorant and superstitious. They were called wops and guineas and their crowded streets were believed to be breeding grounds of crime and depravity.

In the 1920’s racists and advocates of ethnic purity decided to stem the flow of immigration into this country. They wanted no more undesirables, especially if they practiced alien religions like Catholicism and Judaism. New immigration laws made during the 1920s made a mockery of the Statue of Liberty and the famous poem written by Emma Lazarus.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she 
With silent lips.  "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,
 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Why do commentators believe that the Mexicans who have crossed the borders of our country in order to find a better life for themselves and their families, will be different from their own ancestors? 

If the law was different all of these immigrants could have entered the country peacefully without danger to life and limb and without employing criminals to guide them. I’m not saying we should be stupid or impractical. They should have to apply for citizenship and meet certain criteria. They should not immediately enjoy all the benefits of citizenship, for citizenship in this country should still be regarded as a great privilege.

Opening up our doors again will provide great benefits. It is not just a question of who will cut our lawns, remove our garbage, or paint our homes, but how will we compete with China’s huge population with only 300 million people? Who will buy up our unused housing if our population continues to decline? Don’t immigrants now rent American apartments, drive American cars, and buy American products in American stores?

Finally, the pressure on those states that now bear the brunt of illegal immigration will be alleviated. The millions of dollars now spent on controlling the Mexican border can be allocated to other purposes.

See the link to the video tof the trailer for the 2006 film, "The Golden Door" by Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese. It is a wonderful and moving depiction of the passage of one family from the Old World to the New.  Or, just click on the video below.


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