The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Opinion

November 22, 2011

Naomi Lede: Measuring the Nation’s Pulse on Immigration

HUNTSVILLE — During the period after the Civil War, nearly 25 million immigrants came to the United States. Most of them came to stay in America. Historical facts suggest that in 1870 one person in seven was foreign-born, and in 1900 the ratio was still almost as high.

The number of foreign-born residents had almost doubled during the same period and the population of the country had also jumped by 100 percent — from 38 million to 76 million. “In 1890 foreign-born persons in New York-Brooklyn were two-fifths of the populations, in Philadelphia one-fourth, in Boston one third. At one time New York City boasted that it had more Italians than any other city except Rome, more Irish than any other city except Dublin, more Germans than any other city except Berlin, more Greeks than any other city except Athens, and more Jews than any other city in the world,” wrote Leland Baldwin and Robert Kelley in the book, The Main Stream of American History (1965). In later years, there were changes in the origin-destination of immigrants. After World War I about six-tenths came from Southern and Eastern Europe. As a result, immigrants from these sections of Europe did not assimilate like those whose culture and political institutions were more like those of the United States.

The New Immigration: The more diverse immigrants became, the less likely they would become part of “the melting pot.” Movements involving numerous French-Canadians moving to the mill towns of New England; of English-speaking Canadians into American professions and industries; and of Mexicans finding a living in the Southwest border states as herdsmen or seasonal workers in fields, orchards, and canneries. Some scholars assert that “immigration has proven to be the fuel that powered the nation’s growth, be it from the expertise, wealth or labor it brought in. It has also created the dynamic multiculturalism that pervades a daily way of life in modern America and, in the process, enriched the nation’s traditions, art, music and food.” In short, the birth of American identity has been intertwined with the “manner of its birth as a nation, and its people.”

The late President John F. Kennedy’s book, published in 1958, contains a short history of immigration in the United States. Beginning in colonial America, then Senator Kennedy provided an analysis of the important role immigration has played in American history. Also, he proposed “the liberalization of immigration law.”  At a time when the issue of immigration share center stage with concerns about the economy, abortion, health care, Social Security and the environment, for example, the message of Kennedy’s classic essay, A Nation of Immigrants, is as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago. Recently, there has been a clamor by some politicians and citizens toward creating a “closed-door” policy on immigration, arguing that immigrants “threaten” American life by creating unemployment by taking jobs from American workers; by using much-needed social services, and encroaching on the American way of life by not learning to speak English. In a nationally syndicated column, Pat Buchanan, a past Presidential candidate, wrote “immigration should be suspended to preserve the nation.” Buchanan expressed fears that by mid-twenty-first century, “whites might be near a minority.” Some critics appear to be confusing “legal immigration” with “illegal immigration” while others are opposed to immigration — whether legal or illegal.

Republican presidential candidates for 2012 describe how they would deal with the issue of immigration. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann favors placing a fence along the 1,900-mile U. S.-Mexico border, not just 650 miles built at a cost of $2.6 billion. She opposes government benefits for illegal immigrants and their children. Herman Cain advocates securing the border with high fences, empowering the states to deal with the issues, but securing the border with “whatever means necessary.” Newt Gingrich would make English the official language, divert more Homeland Security assets to fighting illegal immigration at the Mexican border. Governor Perry opposes a U.S.-Mexico border fence which he calls “idiocy.” He wants more border agents, supports U. S. citizenship for U. S. born children of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants can get in-state tuition at Texas universities. Mitt Romney, like Bachmann and Rick Santorum, favors a U.S.-Mexico border fence, opposes education benefits to illegal immigrants. Romney proposes more visas for holders of advanced degrees in math, science, and engineering who have U. S. job offers, and would award permanent residency to foreign students who graduate from U. S. schools with a degree in those fields. Former Utah-governor John Huntsman believes that it is unrealistic to deport all illegal immigrants and a “fence is a necessary step to secure the border even “though the thought of a fence to some extent repulses me ...” Texas Rep. Ron Paul said “do whatever it takes to secure the border, end the right of citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, no social services and aggressive deportation.”

The issue of immigration is extremely divisive. For years, Arizona’s Russell Pearce, the most powerful legislator and architect of tough immigration law, has been uncompromising in his opposition to immigration. Disgruntled voters in a suburban neighborhood outside of Phoenix banded together to recall him from the state senate. He was defeated 53 percent to 45 percent. The late President Kennedy was passionate about the issue of immigration reform. He believed that America “is a nation of people who value both tradition and the exploration of new frontiers, people who deserve the freedom to build better lives for themselves in their adopted land.” President Barack Obama, in a speech in June 2005, reminded the nation: “America is a land of big dreamers and big hopes. It is this hope that has sustained us through revolution, the Civil War, depression and two world wars, a struggle for civil and social rights and the brink of nuclear crisis. And it is because our dreamers dreamed that we have emerged from each challenge more united, more prosperous, and more admired than before. Former President George H. W. Bush stated in his State of the Union Address, 1990: “Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, the idea called America, was and always will be a new world — our new world.” As we approach the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, remember these words by Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum: (America is) the land where people find whatever they have lost.” 

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