Immigration: Truth and Myths

This article was published in the Lawrence County Advocate on Wednesday, December 17, 2014.

On a recent Sunday, Kerry and I visited one of our favorite local Mexican restaurants for lunch. We realized, as we scooped up our salsa with the warm chips, that we were just about as regular as the church crowd in their Sunday clothes. I admit to craving the guacamole cesaro just about weekly.

As I looked around the packed dining room, I wondered just how the folks merrily eating away their pollo Mexicano and chicken fajitas would be affected if the people cooking the food and serving us were hastily deported to Mexico. Would they care or just move on to the next colorful establishment serving Mexican food?

I also wondered, how many of those diners joined the cacophony of voices sharply criticizing the President’s executive action giving amnesty to close to 5 million immigrants, largely from Mexico.

Before jumping on the deportation bandwagon, there are a few facts that folks just might find enlightening:

  1. According to the National Constitution Center, The American Presidency Project keeps tabs on Executive Orders by presidents dating back to George Washington. President Obama has issued 184 orders so far in his presidency. George W. Bush, issued 291 orders over eight years, while Bill Clinton had 364 and Ronald Reagan 381. Barack Obama has issued the fewest executive orders per year, at 33.27 annually, since President Grover Cleveland’s first term.
  2. According to the American Immigration Council, presidents have routinely altered immigration policies by executive order, including 18 such changes by five recent Republican presidents — Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43. None of these presidents was threatened with political reprisal for signing the orders.
  3. Reagan used the word legalization instead of amnesty, but with his 1986 act, 3 million illegal aliens came forward to apply. In this regard, Reagan said: “We have consistently supported a legalization program which is both generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people throughout the world who seek legally to come to America. The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

And, to dispel a few myths, according to the American Immigration Council:

  1. Immigrants DO pay taxes, in the form of income, property, sales, and taxes at the federal and state level. As far as income tax payments go, sources vary in their accounts, but a range of studies find that immigrants pay between $90 and $140 billion a year in federal, state, and local taxes.
  2. Immigrants come here to work and reunite with family members not merely to obtain welfare benefits. The ratio between immigrant use of public benefits and the amount of taxes they pay is consistently favorable to the U.S. In one estimate, immigrants earn about $240 billion a year, pay about $90 billion a year in taxes, and use about $5 billion in public benefits. In other words, all of their money does not get sent back to Mexico.
  3. We are less a population of immigrants now than we were a hundred years ago. The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born stands at 11.5% in the 2000s; in the early 20th century it was approximately 15%.
  4. Most of our ancestors came to this country legally because there were no laws against it. That changed in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. In it, the Congress decided that immigrants from China should be kept out altogether due to their biological inferiority to those of European descent. Over the next four decades, Congress gradually restricted further groups: the poor, the sick, the uneducated, and those suspected of holding questionable ideologies. Further, in 1965, President Johnson signed a bill into law forever closing the doors to open immigration. The new law based eligibility to immigrate not on race or country of origin, but rather on family connections and employability for skilled workers. For unskilled workers, the demand is high in the U.S. for employees but visa quotas are extremely low. Under the law, a maximum of 5,000 permanent visas are available per year for employer-sponsored workers other than those who are “highly skilled” or ”holding advanced degrees.”
  5. Immigrants of 100 years ago initially often settled in ethnic neighborhoods, spoke native languages, and built up businesses that catered to their fellow émigrés. They experienced the same types of discrimination that today’s immigrants face. They also integrated within American culture at a similar rate, including with English language proficiency.

My ancestors came from England and Germany. My husband’s were Scotch-Irish. Did they face the same ethnic discrimination that our Hispanic friends do today? They probably did to some extent as statistics above would indicate. So, I like to think that folks from Mexico, Central, and South America will be as highly regarded someday just like my ancestors. Integration does take time. So does changing the minds of people who must accept diversity because it is here to stay.

When President Obama visited Nashville recently, he said many things about the benefits of allowing people to “come out of the shadows,” pay their fines and work without the immediate fear of deportation. (There are an estimated 124,000 illegals in Tennessee from areas as far flung as Somalia, Nepal, Laos, Mexico, and Bangladesh.) He told the audience that their reprieve is temporary; they merely go through the long process of citizenship in the open. He iterated that his executive order is not amnesty. He asked the audience to reach deep down to empathize with people who just want a better life. He reminded us that unless we are from a Native American tribe, we are all truly immigrants ourselves.

But, the president’s tongue-in-cheek remark during the question and answer session brings me back to my favorite Mexican restaurant. Obama spoke of benefits to our culture brought by immigrants, adding that ethnic foods were undeniably delicious. He mentioned Korean barbecue. I thought of the guacamole cesaro awaiting me next Sunday and wondered if the pollo loco might be a nice change of pace.

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