Immigration realities

By Peter Skerry | October 15, 2006

THE LAST several months have seen the most intense debate over immigration that Americans have had in decades. Members of Congress have divided sharply over whether to ratchet up enforcement along our borders, grant legal status to undocumented workers, or both. In Massachusetts, the governor's race could turn in part on whether voters think illegal immigrants should be allowed to get driver's licenses and pay in-state tuition at public universities.

In these controversies, all sides appeal to history. Some look back fondly to an age when America welcomed all comers. Others emphasize how in the past immigrants came here legally and worked hard to assimilate. Still others point out that our history includes more than four decades when immigration was shut off entirely.

The basic premises of the immigration debate rely on such rhetoric and on symbols from our history as the quintessential nation of immigrants. But we should stop and reflect on how these images may cloud our understanding of immigration.

No symbol looms larger than the Statue of Liberty. Yet at first, Liberty had nothing to do with immigration. On the contrary, she was intended as a beacon of hope to those struggling for liberty in their own lands. With her back to New York, she strides oceanward, sending her light out into the world.

Yet even before the statue was unveiled, Liberty's transformation had begun. In 1883, an art auction was held to raise funds to complete her pedestal. Among the items sold was a sonnet, ``The New Colossus," whose author, Emma Lazarus, was moved by the arrival in New York of Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. Thus began the reinterpretation of the statue into a symbol of welcome to immigrants and, in particular, a refuge to those fleeing persecution.

But contrary to Lazarus's stirring language about ``huddled masses yearning to breathe free," most immigrants came not for political freedom but for economic advancement. Historians also note that immigrants were typically not the most downtrodden, but rather those with means to pay for trans-Atlantic passage.

Similarly faulty is the assumption that past immigrants arrived here planning to stay for good. In fact, many -- perhaps most -- originally intended to stay awhile, work hard and save money, and then return home. In the years before World War I, about one-third of those arriving from Europe did just that.

These patterns are also evident today. Sociologist Douglas Massey has documented, for example, that Mexican migrants tend to be those with a modicum of education and resources, and typically come planning to maximize income, minimize expenditures, and then return home with enough money to start a business or build a house. What happens, of course, is that people put down roots and end up staying. But the original intention to return home has enduring effects. One is the emptying of public schools for weeks in the Southwest, when Mexican families head home for long holidays. Another is the low priority that immigrants who don't intend to stay here give to learning English.

Instead of facing up to such complications, we Americans romanticize immigration as a single dramatic moment, sailing past the Statue of Liberty and ``breathing free." We overlook the less romantic reality. So we are offended when immigrants do not live up to our ill-informed expectations.

We need to recognize that immigrants tend to be ambivalent about leaving their homelands and loved ones, and aren't always eager to commit to becoming part of US society. But we should not be surprised or insulted by this. Instead, we should help immigrants clarify the difficult choices they face by making clearer to them -- and to ourselves -- what we expect of them. President Bush's ill-fated guest worker proposal, which promised to make it easier for Mexicans to move back and forth across the border legally, would have done the opposite.

We can start by ending the arguments over bilingual education and bilingual ballots, and get serious about making sure immigrants learn English. Right now, English-instruction programs are poorly conceived, insufficiently attentive to new technologies, and inadequately funded. But once we put our money where our mouths are and invest in such programs, we could in return expect more of those enrolled in them. Participants would commit not only to learning English, but also to making sure their kids stay in school and perhaps to starting the naturalization process.

Such a bargain with immigrants could take many forms. But it can only begin once we get past the romantic symbols of our immigrant past and face up to the real choices ahead of us. Otherwise we will remain caught up in this elaborate dance -- between immigrants who are not sure that they want to be here and Americans who are not sure they want them to stay.

Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Boston College, is currently a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. This column is adapted from a piece that appeared in Wilson Quarterly.

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