Monday, February 25, 2008

Immigration – the First and Last issue for Nation of Immigrants

In my last blog, I mentioned the rare and endangered Taiwanese Salmon that was land-locked during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. The melting of the ice at the end of the ice age, on the other hand, severed the “land route” between Asia and North America. As a result, indigenous peoples of the Americas have charted their own path and history until 1492 when Columbus reached the Americas (unless you subscribe to the much discredited hypothesis of Gavin Menzies' that Chinese discovered Americas in 1421). Immigration and associated issues had then begun.

U.S. is a fascinating success example of a nation of immigrants in fast motion – from a tiny population to 300 millions people in 400+ years with enviable prosperity. While the early immigration was naturally dominated with Spaniards, British, French and to a lesser extent, several other Western European countries followed quickly and colonized various parts of U.S. By 1790, before the European immigration took a pause of 30 years due to the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, U.S. population had reached close to 4 millions with British being the majority.

While we are on the history of immigration, one must not forget the near-genocide of Native Americans. One must not forget either the forced immigration of Africans over 200 years ago. Before Sir William Wilberforce finally succeeded in pushing through the abolition of 250 year old slave trades in British Parliament in 1807 (a dramatized presentation of the story can be seen at the 2006 movie Amazing Grace), it was estimated that more than half a million of African slaves were forced to US, not including many who died on the gruesome journeys. This is in dark contrast with other groups of so-called “Old Immigrants” primarily WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) most of them migrated to U.S. in seeking economic opportunities and religious freedom. Of course while US congress did abolish the slave trade at the same year as the British, it left its domestic practice of slavery continue until the end of the civil war 60 years later.

It does not take a genius to figure out the primarily motive of immigration has always been an economic one; it simply takes a lot of courage and determination to leave family and friends for unknowns. As such, one finds recurring stories of waves after waves of immigrants who traveled afar with a small bag of strong belief and hope, worked hard and settled in this vast land to build their new homes and better future. It is this very spirit and shared value that makes Americans and the country vibrant and what is.

Yet generations after generations, one continues to find from time to time mass hysteria with varying degrees of hostility towards new immigrants. For example, the wave of Irish Catholic immigration in 1840s, triggered by the famine, was opposed fiercely (but unsuccessfully) by many based on arguments including one for their different religion. The discrimination and prejudice (by the “Old Immigrants”) was also visible in late 19th to early 20th century against the “new immigrants” from Southern (e.g. Italy) and Eastern Europe (e.g. Poland) and Asia (e.g. Japan) under many covers and arguments, although there was never any data supporting the claims and accusations. The most astonishing example can be found in 1882, when congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (which was repealed in 1943), the first and only Federal immigration law that explicitly discriminated against a particular ethnic group including those who were already legally residing in U.S.

According to the latest published government statistics, there was never a time that the population of foreign-born (i.e. first generation) immigrants exceeds 10-15% of the total population. Current estimate of the U.S. population is about 300 millions out of which 35 millions are foreign-born legal residents. It is also estimated by CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that there are currently 4% or 12 millions of unauthorized immigrants in U.S. Numerous research and analyses from government and private institutions be they liberal, conservative or independent, have shown however that if any, there are only positive gains albeit relatively in % on various macro-economic indicators. There is also no secret that by taking in skilled workers, the country has reaped tremendous economic benefits, many beyond easy quantification, without paying for the cost of developing such talents which is born by their homelands. Further, as the demography shifts towards to one with increasingly number of older population, immigration is recognized as an effective tool to help maintain a healthy worker-retiree ratio, thus sustain critical social services and commitments. Indeed seeking special skills and filling the gap of labor shortage has long been a central part of the stated U.S. immigration policy.

Some might say the problem is with “illegal aliens” and want us to believe that these people are dragging us down by utilizing public services from education to health care. This is simply not the case as affirmed by the recent CBO study, published on Dec 2007. The study disputed the claim with real data that there is no significant cost and financial impact of unauthorized immigration on the budget and expenses of States and Local governments. Some might say the problem is the depressing of wages and loss of jobs brought by those. Sounds familiar? Similar blames have been made every time in the last 4 centuries against new immigrants, authorized or not, based on selected anecdotal but true stories. While major entry points for immigrants tend to be lower-wage lower-skill markets and particular sectors (like agriculture in recent decades) where there is a labor shortage; the growth of economy and fundamental law of demand and supply drive it, not the “aliens’.

The truth is we just can’t escape completely from our basic human nature of fear and greed. We do react consciously or unconsciously to concerns for real or perceived threats and for contention of resources or intrusion of “our space”. Immigration is simply another example of such familiar but unfortunate behavior and psychology. It is sad however that one finds in these situations over-zealous self-appointed crusaders like Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo who prey on the human weakness, exaggerate the issues and trivialize the solutions.

Clearly there is a right way and wrong way to approach the issues; reporting your neighbors and rounding up people is wrong no matter what excuses one uses, be it national security or fear for repeat of 9/11. Building a modern day “Great Wall” physical and virtual that costs billions after billions of tax payers money is wrong and close to being silly, especially when considering the law of economics and the fact that a significant portion (estimated at 1/3 to 40%) of unauthorized immigrants are ones overstayed their visas, not just the ones running across the Rio Grande. It would be far more productive to incent and help the Mexicans build better and more equitable economy than to punish those employers and clients who did not exploit the immigrants. It would be far more productive to help educate the children of unauthorized immigrants to realize their parents’ dreams than to segregate them into ghettos and undergrounds. It would be far more productive to help and motivate unemployed workers seek training and move up in their economic ladder than to engage them in bigotry and leave them on social welfare.

There is no question the problem is hard but an important one given that it cuts across the very fabric of the American society. One must begin to develop now on a new long term vision and framework that addresses, among many, the balances of roles and responsibilities of Federal vs. State/Local governments including education, health care, and law enforcement. The founding fathers, despite their infinite wisdom, could not have foreseen the challenges of immigration as this Nation of Immigrations matured and reached its peak in a global economy.

Talk to you soon!

1 comment:

Pearly said...

Interesting to know.