Monday, September 5, 2016

Immigrant Labor 2016

Three Mexicans painted the exterior of our house last week. A friend who had recently employed them, recommended them highly. We called the owner and he promptly came by and we accepted his quote without quibbling. He and his crew arrived on the day appointed and got right down to work. I never saw such hard working men. The owner has been working in this country for eighteen years and his girlfriend cleans houses.

That same week I had two doctor appointments. The first was with my glaucoma surgeon, an immigrant from Russia, who saved my vision almost ten years ago with surgeries to lower the pressure on my optic nerves. He is one of the leading glaucoma specialists in the country. He is a relatively young doctor who left Russia many years ago to get away from bureaucracy and red tape. Now, he complains that the USA is becoming like the old Soviet Union.

The next day I saw a plastic surgeon who had just repaired my drooping eyelids, a procedure necessary to avoid future eye infections. This doctor is an immigrant to this country from Spain. He runs a very successful practice in a nearby town and employs three or four assistants.

Finally, I went to my local barbershop for my monthly haircut. The owner has been cutting my hair for almost 50 years. He came to this country from Italy with his family when he was only 14 years old. It took him six years to become a citizen after which he joined the Naval Reserves and then did two years of active duty in the Pacific during the Vietnam war. Within a couple of years after his return, he opened his own shop and now provides work for four other barbers, two of whom are his own children.

Some, like the editors of the Wall St. Journal, take a middle ground on immigration and argue that our doors should be open, but only to highly skilled workers like physicists and engineers. They believe that others are undesirable.

But who is undesirable? All of the immigrants that I met in the past week are, despite differing educational backgrounds, and occupations, exactly the kind of people that we should want in this country.

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.

Nevertheless, the great majority prospered and their children quickly became assimilated, and became policemen, firemen, and teachers. Their grandchildren became today’s physicists, engineers, and tech experts. The descendants of the original immigrants now play an integral role in the affairs of this country. Two descendants of illiterate Italian immigrants have sat 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 impose quotas?

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.
  "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 had been different all of these immigrants could have entered the country peacefully without danger to life and limb and without employing criminals to guide them.

Nevertheless, I can understand the vehemence of Donald Trump and others against illegal immigration. His opponent seems to be oblivious to the criminal element among the illegal immigrants or those who overstay their visas. Certainly, he seems more willing to identify and deal with the threat of Moslem terrorists among the refugees seeking asylum in this country. His ideological test may not work but at least he seems to recognize the threat.

He is also right to insist that citizenship should still mean something in America. There should be real benefits attached to citizenship. Immigrants 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.

In the long run opening up our doors to immigrants 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?


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