Tag Archive | "immigration"

Eastville Strives To Unite With Latino Community

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November 2011 451

By Claire Walla

The Latino community has had a strong presence on the East End for many years, yet despite the fact it is now an integral part of the local economy and culture, misunderstandings about the immigrant experience persist.

It’s not that there haven’t been meetings geared toward learning more about the East End’s Latino community, or local events that celebrate Latin culture — there have. But for Eunice Vaughan, President of the Eastville Community Historical Society, the issue is that “we walk away and say, ‘that was interesting.’”

And then it’s back to business as usual.

“To me, it’s more than that,” Vaughan continued. “What can we do to improve the life of the immigrant person who’s coming here? How can we start something?”

That was the impetus behind an event held last Saturday, November 5 at the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor. Organized with Witness for Peace — a national grassroots organization committed to promoting nonviolence — a group of seven East End residents sat down in a ring of folding chairs and listened to Jacqueline Garcia as she spoke about the perils of immigration, and the hardships that plague migrants both here and at home.

“It’s really about telling the human story,” said Eastville Community Historical Society Director Georgette Grier-Key.

After participating in a delegation made up of Long Islanders who went on a trip to Mexico early last month, Grier-Key has been empowered to make the issues that affect migrants right here in Sag Harbor more prominent in the community. So, in conjunction with Witness for Peace, she made sure Garcia’s East Cast speaking tour made a stop in Eastville, hoping her story might spark a dialogue.

Mexico Delegation

Above: The delegation of Long Islanders who traveled to Mexico in October.  Grier-Key is second row from the top to the far left.  Sag Harbor resident and former school board member Dan Hartnett is third row from the top to the far left.

Garcia discussed the gang violence many immigrants face as they try to pass through Mexico; she spoke about the “highly protected” wall that runs along the U.S. border, which she said “visualizes a young person as a criminal”; and she went into the roots and motivations behind many immigrants’ journeys north, which are complicated and numerous.

“It’s like a big octopus,” she said.

But the perils of immigration extend beyond extreme poverty back home, and are longer-lasting than the hazardous journey north.

“In Mexico, we have our own way of living,” Garcia explained, so life in the U.S. brings major culture shock.

With a Priest adjusted

Above: Grier-Key (second from left), Dan Hartnett (far left) and members of the Mexico Delegation visited a church in the town of Matias Romero, in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Imagine the stress and the emotional weight that these migrants have carried with them,” she went on. “And because they’re undocumented they have a lot of fear; often times, people don’t want to even leave their house to go to the store. There’s usually a great amount of loneliness.”

Audience members asked Garcia about the harsh conditions in Mexico and intellectualized the root of the problem before Vaughan once again brought the issue back to the East End.

“The important thing is … what can we do here?” Vaughan asked. “We pass each other on the street and we say ‘hello,’ but that’s not enough. I don’t know how you feel, and you don’t know how I feel. There’s no communication.”

Jim Marquardt, a Sag Harbor resident, agreed with Vaughan, and added: “Language is a huge barrier. When you talk about better communication, that’s just basic.”

Sag Harbor resident Kathy Tucker wondered whether there was a way to engage the Latino community through the local library, or through the churches.

“You’re right on when you talk about libraries and churches,” said Sandra Dunn, a resident of Hampton Bays who is the immigration program officer for the Hagedorn Foundation, which organized the Long Island delegation to Mexico. “[Integration] has to happen on a really local level. You can’t just support immigrants rights, you have to support the people in your community.”

For Dan Hartnett, a former Sag Harbor School Board Member and a social worker in the East Hampton School District, working to improve the lives of Latino immigrants who have moved to the East End has been a priority for nearly 30 years.

“In terms of the schools, we have an uneasy mix: North American, white, Latin American, African American… “ he began. “The issue is very complicated. I have heard many, many times, especially from African American families, ‘We’ve been here for many generations and we’ve never had social workers.’ Now, here’s this new population and their needs are getting addressed.”

Finding a way to integrate the diverse communities of the East End is not easy, Hartnett continued. But he agreed with those who pointed to local organizations like churches and libraries to bring the community together. In fact, he said several years ago church leaders throughout the East End did coalesce in an effort to open up more of a dialogue on the issue.

“Those clerics have since moved on,” Hartnett continued. “But I hope there will be a new group there. We should go talk to our ministers and our priests and say, ‘It’s time to look at this again.’”

Finding Common Ground on Immigration Debate

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Dozens of East End citizens gathered in the lobby of Guild Hall on Friday evening, shaking out umbrellas while the rain drizzled outside. The crowd wasn’t there to see a play or meander through an art exhibition, but to attend a panel on how the immigrant population affects the local economy. Although the first immigration forum, hosted by U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop, New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, and Southampton Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst in March, was somewhat hostile, Friday’s event proved to be calmer, as participants were asked to write their questions on note cards. Many of those questions steered the discussion topics for the evening and people on both sides of the issue seemed to agree on certain points made by the panel.

“I think we can all agree that the immigration system is broken, though we might disagree on the solution,” noted David Dyssegaard Kallick, one of the panelists and a senior fellow at the state’s Fiscal Policy Institute. Other panelists added that economics is at the heart of the immigration argument.
“I think people are angry about how hard they have to work just to get by,” said Joe Gergela, of the Long Island Farm Bureau, responding to a question on why immigration is an emotional topic. His response elicited applause from both sides and dovetailed comments Bishop made earlier in the evening.
“This is an issue which inspires emotion and anger, but anger won’t solve the problem,” said Bishop. ”I want us to come together with the same set of facts.”
Kallick reported that 22 percent of the $1.02 trillion GDP (Gross Domestic Product) for New York State is generated by immigrant workers. In Suffolk County, immigrants account for 13 percent of the population. He noted that these immigrants work in a variety of fields and added that day laborers are a “tiny” portion of the immigrant workforce.
According to Gergela, these foreign-born workers are a vital part of agricultural production on Long Island. Suffolk County is the top agricultural producer for the state, he added. Gergela said enforcing immigration law wasn’t the job of farmers, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Noting the role of the federal government, Gergela added that ICE “raids” on local businesses would weaken the economy.
“During the harvest season, if you take away the workforce on these farms it could lead to bankruptcies,” said Gergela.
Maintaining a stable workforce is already a concern for local farmers, noted panelist and Dowling College fellow Judy Brink. Citing a 2008 survey on Long Island farms, Brink said around 68 percent of respondents reported that it was already difficult to maintain their workforce and losing even one worker would force them to sell their land.
For local farmers, attracting and sustaining a legal workforce is extremely difficult, due in part to complicated requirements and a dysfunctional visa system said immigration lawyer Melinda Rubin. Farmers must provide housing, which can be prohibitively expensive on the East End. For H2B visas, which are reserved for landscape, construction and hotel workers, a cap has been set at 66,000 visas nationwide, which Rubin said doesn’t satisfy the country’s labor needs. The visa process, she added, is laborious and long with some immigrants waiting years before receiving a visa.
“The government has made it easier to do the wrong thing instead of the right thing,” said Rubin of illegal immigration.
Although some complain illegal immigrants strain local resources, Rubin argued that illegal immigrants pay sales tax and contribute substantially to the Social Security system. Deporting the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants all at once, Rubin added, would cost around $206 billion, over a five year period, and would result in a $1.8 trillion loss in annual spending.
Kallick, however, disputed these figures and said it was futile to estimate these costs because mass deportation is a near impossible task.
“You don’t want a situation where people have to carry their identification papers on them at all times,” added Kallick. “We need to focus on how we can increase the legal workforce.”
Attendees of the forum, however, disagreed on whether the solution lies in a comprehensive reform of the immigration system or beefed up enforcement of the current immigration regulations.
Elaine Kahl of the Suffolk County Coalition for Legal Immigration believes stopping illegal immigration begins with enforcing the current laws, adding that local government should be diligent in upholding these laws.
Southampton Town Councilwoman Sally Pope said immigration law is a federal matter and the town won’t deputize its police force to carry out these laws.
Thiele promised there will be more forums before the summer season ends. He added that housing will likely be the subject of a follow-up forum.
Of Friday’s event, Throne-Holst said, “This is a process that is unfolding. There are a lot of facts out there and we want to bring them together to create a useful and healthy dialogue.”

Above: Fiscal Policy Institute Fellow David Dyssgaard Kallick says the immigration system is broken.

Leave Rhetoric at the Door

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We attended last week’s immigration forum at the senior center in Hampton Bays, and although U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop, who spoke at the event, is justified in saying the status quo for the treatment of undocumented immigrants living on the East End is unacceptable, we feel the “status quo” for how these immigration forums are structured also needs to change.

Local politicians keep reiterating the importance of engaging in a dialogue between those who are pro-immigrant and those against, but perhaps at this point, simply talking isn’t enough to bridge the gap between these two divergent parties. Perhaps touting dialogue as the panacea for this complicated and sticky issue is only adding emotional fuel to the fire.

We find that there are inherent problems with forums in which the first hour is devoted to presentations from the panel of politicians and experts, and then the floor is turned over for public comment and questions in the second hour.

To begin with, too often people use this platform as an opportunity to stand on their soapboxes and spout arguments and “facts” about the topic which are often misleading or just wrong. The temptation to expound a polarizing idea was fueled at last Friday’s forum by the presence of a large and captivated crowd. The arguments took on a theatrical quality and the words contained barely cloaked racism.

Often the word “illegal” was said with the same venom some people use when uttering a racial pejorative.

Not very constructive, as we see it.

However, people’s questions regarding the issues cannot be continually met with vague responses from panelists. Politicians need to start addressing these comments and questions with actual ideas that might be used to enact local, state or even federal policies and programs to ameliorate the issue, instead of waxing poetic.

Instead of engaging simply in dialogue (that often devolves into one sided rants), perhaps its time these forums had people from all sides of the community come forward with ideas that might solve some of the criticisms aimed at immigrants in general and undocumented workers in particular. We are not the first community to deal with this issue — maybe it’s time to look to other parts of the country to see how they’ve handled controversy related to the immigration issue. And instead of keeping people in their seats, why not give the audience a specific topic to tackle and set-up tables where residents can discuss and debate the details in a face to face setting with a moderator?

This is an issue that should continue to be depoliticized and looked at through a practical lens. Even if deporting all the undocumented workers in the country was a possibility, which is unlikely, it is a solution that would take several years if not decades to achieve and the problems between undocumented immigrants and longtime residents is occurring right now.

So while we are grateful to our local politicians for their interest and attention to this issue, we ask that they try to find alternative ways of presenting forums that actually results in some headway being made on immigration.

We understand this is an uphill battle and that, despite any positives that come from these forums, there will always be those whose minds will not be changed under any circumstances.

So let’s use these immigration platforms as a way to focus on the concrete and leave the rhetoric at the door. Remember, sometimes, it takes years — and generations — to change minds. There’s no two hour forum in the world that is likely to alter that reality.

 

 

 

Anna Throne-Holst

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The Southampton Town Councilperson on forming a coalition to address immigration on the East End, confronting conflicting ideals and what the coalition cannot do.

 

When the coalition first began – what were some of the immediate goals you hoped for concerning immigration?

Our goals were to try to get people from all parts of the community together and start talking about how we can start the immigration dialogue in our community. There are issues around it that are good and bad and indifferent. We began with the feeling that this is the elephant on the couch and no one wants to come out and take the politics out and address this issue. I think in the past it hasn’t been very easy for anyone to deal with it. Clergy and non-profits deal with it and it is very easy to say it’s a federal problem.  You could keep passing the buck – but nothing else will be done about it if we don’t come forward and talk about it now. 

 

Who are the key players involved in the coalition?

Tim [Bishop} and Fred [Thiele]. The clergy reached out to them. They invited elected officials and had a couple meetings which were held at the college to get the conversation going. Between the three of us, we represented three levels of government and are able to represent the different roles we play. The thought was that unless we all get together it’s easy to keep passing the buck. This way we take the political football out of here too. There is no particular agency or level of government but we are trying to take the bull by the horns and send the signal that we were willing to work together on this and be able to take the politics out of it.

 

Are there other organizations or coalitions that have formed in this country that deal with this issue or other issues that are similar?

Yes, I believe there are several. We haven’t modeled ourselves after anyone in particular, there are several organizations that have successful outcomes, but every community is different and the goals are different. We are hoping to get as much information as possible and craft solutions for our community. I’m sure our solutions will be unique to us.

 

Is the town looking to set new policies regarding immigration?

That is hard to say. I was asked at Friday’s forum what can I do as a town representative? It’s a good question. There are things we can do and things we can’t do. There are things we are restricted from doing. It’s important to understand what we can do on a local level.  I believe that I can have an open door, there are people with issues around this issue and I can deal with those on an individual basis. I can work with the things I have on hand, I can get code enforcement. We are concerned about the well being of families and I can go to the clergy group and ask them to help. We can start talking about the partnerships, but more than anything else we can start this conversation and look at it from all levels and see what we can do about this.

What that is going to lead to? It’s too soon to say. But we have to do something – nothing has been done so far and no one wanted to touch this issue. But we do know what we can’t do or don’t want to do.

 

And what are some of the things you can’t do or don’t want to do?

We can’t deport people. We don’t have the power to crack down on people who employ undocumented workers. We cannot strip them of their rights as humans. But on both sides of this issue, we can foster a healthy dialogue.

We want to bring all of this together. We want all the facts and figures brought to the table so we are all working from the same set of facts. We want to know how this is affecting neighborhoods, hospitals and schools.

 We can’t change the federal mandates. If this is an issue in our school then how do we work with the schools to somehow ease that? Or how can we help people understand?

The president of the hospital said those that work in the hospital are federally mandated to fix what comes in their doors; they are precluded from asking any issues of visa or residency. The bigger issue for them is uninsured patients. There could be someone as American as apple pie or a visitor to the U.S. who is on vacation but their bigger issue is uninsured Americans. And how do we wrap our heads around that?

 

Do you find that there is any structure or anything that needs to be tweaked concerning the issue of immigration?

Right now there are no laws or direction. There is no doubt that we need comprehensive immigration reform, and laws and a road map for going forward – and that is important to point out. One thing that both Barack Obama and John McCain agreed on was an immigration policy. But we need to know how that is going to come down the pike for us. Until we get that – it will be hard for us. Right now our laws don’t affect any of this so it’s more about finding practical solutions and our realities in the community.

 

How do you find a middle ground with so many conflicting ideals concerning immigration?

Allowing and welcoming the dialogue and making everyone feel they are welcoming the dialogue and that’s okay, but in the end we need to start talking and looking at the facts and figures and the problems. We need to look at what is or isn’t working and what is affecting the community and the quality of life and economics.

I hope the outcome is that there is a dialogue and people feel they are welcome to that dialogue and then we hope we can come to some consensus collectively. I think we want healthy dialogue; we want to recognize the many sides to this issue.

We don’t want what happened in Patchogue to happen here – we don’t want the quality of life to be adversely impacted. But we also want to know that businesses are being supported and laws are being respected, the solutions we hope will form themselves.

One thing we do know is there are confusion and a lot of anger and a strong sense that nothing is being done and that is not okay.

 

Overall, how do you think Friday night’s immigration forum went?

There was some anger. But the way I look at it, I could’ve gone home and put on my slippers.

But there were 150 people there – and what that speaks to this issue that is so important to so many people. It is incumbent on us not to get into our slippers on Friday night and bring people together, and the chips will fall where they are going to fall. We recognize what a big issue this is. And we are being proactive to work around it.

 

 

Starting a Dialogue on Immigration Reform

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In recent years, immigration on the East End has become a contentious, and often polarizing, issue. Each side — whether it be those who wish to see every undocumented immigrant deported or those who wish to see amnesty for all undocumented immigrants — continues to fight a fierce rhetorical argument against one another. Hoping to bridge the gap between these two groups, US Congressman Tim Bishop, Southampton Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst and New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele teamed up to host a forum titled “Immigration in the Hamptons: Beginning a Community Dialogue” on Friday, March 13, at the Southampton Senior Center in Hampton Bays.

While people waved American flags and held up signs saying “Deport Illegals” outside, Bishop told the audience the current status quo of community relations towards immigrants residing in the East End was “unacceptable.”

“I hope we can come to an understanding … and cut through the ugliness [surrounding this issue] to talk in a civil and respectful fashion,” continued Bishop.

He went on to say that while the federal government has focused much of its efforts on border patrol, internal enforcement of immigration laws have been neglected and the visa program is in disrepair. Bishop hopes the federal government will adopt an “earned citizenship” program for the 12 to 15 million undocumented workers currently living in the country.

Creating a path to “earned citizenship” is a bipartisan solution to the problem, said Bishop, and is an idea which has received backing from Senator John McCain and former President George Bush, Jr. After the forum, Thiele added that this policy of “earned citizenship” would make undocumented workers pay back taxes and other various fines.

There were many people in the audience, however, who criticized this plan saying deportation of all undocumented immigrants was still a viable option. Others said that while the nation waits for a full revision and update of immigration laws, the presence of illegal immigrants creates an economic strain on local residents.

One Hampton Bays resident, who is also a contractor, said he is continually outbid on projects because he uses legal labor, while, he added, other contractors employ undocumented laborers for less pay.

“A lot of people are very angry,” said Ronald Lawandowski, the director of the Patriots Border Alliance for Suffolk County.

However, other attendees, like Sag Harbor lawyer Bridget Fleming, wished this anger was tempered with words of compassion.

“There is no doubt that there is a group of people who are very angry, but I think there is a lot of misunderstanding. [Almost] every single one of those people [in that room] comes from an immigrant family, who were faced with identical challenges when they first arrived [to this country] … The solution to deport everyone is impossible,” said Fleming.

Fleming said she attended the meeting to learn how to inspire cultural acceptance in the Sag Harbor community, in order to avoid tragic situations like the murder of Marcello Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, in Patchogue this past November.

“I want to make sure that doesn’t happen in our school … Cultivating compassion is the only way we can create a safe, happy and prosperous community,” added Fleming.

Thiele reported that the forum on Friday will be one of many to come. He said the principal goal of the forums was to not only facilitate a dialogue, but to also educate the public on the key facts surrounding immigration and immigration policies.

“Obviously holding one forum in two hours, we are only able to scratch the surface of the issue … It will not be just one meeting [though], but a long process of getting information out there,” he said. “Through conversation and discussion, I do think the larger community can start to reach some kind of consensus.”

He added that in the future, the panels might devote a whole forum on one key issue, such as health care or the economics of immigration. According to Thiele, it is also imperative to discuss issues surrounding immigration today, before tensions between the various groups flare up tomorrow.

“The underlying issues that come with immigration are very much ingrained into the East End community,” said Thiele. “[Immigration] is an issue we will be confronted with for a long time.”

Above: A Southampton Town resident voiced his concerns over immigration at the immigration forum hosted by Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst, Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Congressman Tim Bishop. 

Seeking Immigration Answers

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By Marianna Levine

It was clear from the start that several audience members at a panel discussion last Thursday on immigration were not immigrants themselves. They were there as concerned residents who came with their own opinions on immigration they hoped to be able to air during the discussion. However, the event’s organizers, Organizacion Latino Americana’s (OLA), as well as the discussion’s moderator, Joachim Mendez created some ground rules he introduced with a joke to dispel the already apparent tensions, “If you have something you want to say we’ll have a beer later. If you have a question then raise your hand.” He stressed this was an informational meeting and not a debate.

Still the first person to speak was an woman from Southampton who expressed fear that people who were born and raised on Long Island were being treated like outsiders rather than insiders.

“We are American citizens, and we’ve welcomed an international community here for over 45 years. Can we be included in this dialogue please?” To which Mendez responded, “(the welcoming has occurred for) more like a couple hundred years. And we shouldn’t get into this now. I will not allow it. If you don’t have a question we’ll move on.”

From then on there were a plethora of questions from both local business owners as well as immigrants asked in both Spanish and English, and always translated for all to understand. Most questions concerned small business owners and the need for work visas and driver’s licenses for their workers, the actual naturalization process, and most urgently what was occurring with immigration reform in Washington D.C.

The panel, held at the Bridgehampton National Bank meeting room in Bridgehampton, included immigration attorneys Millicent Clarke and Allen Kaye (of the American Immigration Lawyers Association), as well as the Executive Director of the Long Island Immigration Alliance Luis Velenzuela, and Congressman Tim Bishop.

The immigration lawyers fielded the questions regarding the immigration process, often cautioning audience members to be wary of so-called lawyers who promise to put aside tax money for the future for undocumented workers or who make any easy promises about the naturalization process. Both Clarke and Kaye suggested waiting for immigration reform prior to starting any paperwork.

Kaye explained that there are basically only three ways to get a Green Card in the United States. You can either get one through an employer, or by marrying or being related to a citizen, or you can have resided here illegally for over ten years and take your chances before a judge in court. He then explained that trying to get a Green Card properly as an undocumented person almost always means, “You’re asking to be deported.”

Congressman Tim Bishop arrived soon after this discussion began, and addressed questions on comprehensive immigration reform. An audience member asked in frustration, “What is wrong with getting in line and waiting?” To which Congressman Bishop replied, “The fundamental problem is that the current system is a broken system that simply doesn’t work. I think we can all agree that it isn’t working. This discussion is a symptom of the fact that the system is broken. We don’t have a visa system that works. We have people who stand in line for 5 to 20 years and nothing happens.” He also added that, “No solutions can come from the vantage point of anger. I believe we should make a good faith effort to put our differences aside and try to bring people together.”

Bishop explained the new comprehensive immigration reform would come about in four parts in something referred to as the “Strive Act.” First the U.S. government would need to intensify border protection, and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. Thereafter the government would construct a visa program that actually worked and reflected the needs of our country and business owners. Bishop explained this would include a simplified agricultural work visa. He then noted that the fourth aspect of this plan is the most controversial, since it would create a path to legalization for those who are currently in the U.S. without proper documentation.

“Undocumented workers would be given a work visa as long as they have a clean record for about 11 or 12 years,” said Bishop. “They would have to pay a fine and back taxes on the money they earned off the books. They would have to learn English and civics and maintain a clean record for that period. After that they would be granted permanent residency.”

Asked when immigration reform would be passed, Bishop answered, “I believe it will be considered sometime in June or September. President Obama has made it very clear he supports comprehensive immigration reform.” He also said that he guessed the bill had a better than 50/50 chance of passing this year.

 

 

 

Some “Secrets” About Immigration In An Economic Downturn

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By Richard Gambino

A major reason for today’s “immigration problem” is never discussed — never even mentioned. It lies in a few  simple economic facts. One, the American economy (as measured by the Gross Domestic Product) is  at  over 14 trillion dollars. This is three times what it was just twenty-five years ago. The rate of unemployment  as of December 2007, before the current economic downturn, was just five percent. Based on these facts, it isn’t hard to see that the phenomenal growth of our economy in the last twenty-five years required immigrants’ labor — including the labor of illegal immigrants — and could not have risen to the present level without them. Another way of putting it is that if we had deported all 12 million illegal immigrants, the first thing we would  have had to do is scramble to replace them with 12 million legal immigrants used to manual labor, impossible given our immigration laws, or face a massive economic problem.

Another set of important “secrets” about immigration follows directly from the above. The reason that our border with Mexico was not sealed during the last two decades is that powerful cores of each political party in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, did not want to seal it. Technology existed to do so, e.g., satellites and aircraft with daylight TV cameras good enough to read a newspaper on the ground, nighttime technology almost as good, and we could have mustered manpower on the ground to work in concert with this technology. We didn’t do so because enough politicians knew well about the essential economic need for, and value of, the cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants in our economy. Without them, our crops, from Eastern Long Island to California, would rot in the fields, our motels, hotels, office buildings and other buildings would go uncleaned and unmaintained, our lawns untended, our restaurants unstaffed, and innumerable other types of manual labor not done. And, now, of course, each political party fears, and hopes to gain, “the Hispanic vote.”

Still another “secret” is a bit better known: the government of Mexico facilitated and still facilitates the exodus of its citizens to the U.S. as a safety valve for its failure to remedy the unemployment and poverty there. Just as in the era from 1820 to 1924, the governments of Italy, the Czarist Empire, Germany, Scandinavia, the British government of Ireland, and many other nations pushed their poor, 33.5 million of them, to go to the U.S., or turned a blind eye as they left.

In summary, a good deal of the responsibility for 12 million  immigrants being here illegally lies with the U.S. and Mexican Governments.

Let’s separate the border question from the question of the presence of the illegal immigrants already here. In 2008, we are in an economic downturn not likely to end for a couple of years, according to experts. Thus, the political calculus is changing. With the unemployment rate up to 5.7% in the second quarter, and the GDP up only 1% in the first quarter and 1.9% in the second, both political parties walk on egg shells about the illegals in our midst, fearing increased hostility toward immigrants. All of which gives fuel to immigrant-bashers, who, as is well known, are — one and all — direct descendants of the earliest pre-Columbian peoples who inhabited the Western Hemisphere. 

If the next Congress and the next President truly will it, the border can be and will be sealed, using the technology already cited. The second question, quite independent from the border, is: how are we going to treat the 12 million illegals already here? The days are over when the U.S. government could deport people, including some who were U.S. citizens, without due process of law, as it did with 400,000 Mexicans from 1929 to 1934, and 2.2 million Mexicans, in “Operation Wetback” from 1953 to 1955. Today’s  U.S. legal standards and today’s courts would not allow it. Moreover, legal due process for 12 million people would mean most of them, and us, would  never see the end of the police and court logjams that would be produced.

Of course, we can make the lives of today’s immigrants as hard as possible, just as was experienced in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth. Ghastly slum-housing, poor or non-existent medical care, grueling or dangerous work for poor wages, inferior schools and high early drop-out rates, short shrift and being cheated by governments and employers. For a glimpse of these in the twentieth century read Pietro di Donato’s powerful 1939 novel, Christ In Concrete. And for a taste of the bitter farm life of earlier immigrants on the American plains, read Willa Cather’s great 1918 novel, My Antonia. Now, pressure is building to penalize employers who hire illegals, with the goal of forcing the immigrants back to their countries of origin. But it won’t work, just as the immigrants of a century and more ago were not driven to leave. They knew that hard times in the U.S. were preferable to hard times in “the old country.”

Immigrant-bashers like to point  out that our ancestors came here legally. Because, except for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (instigated by California bigots), there were no restrictions on immigration until the 1924 National Origins Act, which drastically limited the number of immigrants, especially those from southern and eastern Europe, whom nativists blamed for the nation’s problems.

Today, in expressing their anti-immigrant sentiment, many echo the same complaints of previous times. Now, immigrants, especially illegals, are said to be loyal to a foreign nation, and so will never make good U.S. citizens, just as, starting in the 1850s, the nativist Know Nothing Movement won elections by claiming that Catholic Irish immigrants were loyal to a “foreign potentate,” i.e., the Pope, who was aiming to use them to subvert and take over the U.S. Want ads in newspapers and in store windows carried the phrase, “No Irish Need Apply,” a bow to the charge that the Irish immigrants were suppressing the wage scales of native-born Americans.

In 2008, we are given also other warnings about immigrants that … well, that are exactly the same as what Benjamin Franklin in 1751 warned about German immigrants who were coming in large numbers to Pennsylvania: “This Pennsylvania will in a few years become a German colony; instead of learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live in a foreign country.” But the American-born children of the Germans did learn English, just as the second-generation children of all past immigrants learned English — and the American-born children of immigrants are doing so today. (Time magazine claims that 88% of them are already fluent in English.)

Immigrants do press institutions like hospitals and schools in some localities, but many politicians prefer demagogic immigrant-bashing rather than come up with  constructive policies to address this. History does not repeat itself. But we can learn from it. Or choose to ignore it, and mindlessly construct a new Know Nothingism for the twenty-first century.

 

RICHARD GAMBINO is professor emeritus at Queens College (CUNY), where for decades he taught courses in immigration history and the history of immigrants to the U.S.