Thanksgiving and Immigration

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In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation for the first national celebration of Thanksgiving. Over the years, Thanksgiving has increasingly become a time for families and friends to gather together and to collectively express their gratitude for the friendships that they enjoy and the bounties that they have received. This year's Thanksgiving presents a special challenge to us as citizens and as human beings because it raises two important question that each of us should answer: who precisely are our neighbors and should they be given a place at our collective table?         

           The current debate - or rather hysteria - over immigration and President's Obama's administrative decisions concerning undocumented aliens illustrates how profoundly divisive the issue remains.


          House Speaker John Boehner accused President Obama of ignoring the will of the American people and opined," President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left." Rep. Mo Brooks ( R, AL) said there is a federal statute that made it a felony to aid, abet, or entice a foreigner to illegally enter the U.S.  "At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president's conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States of America," and he added,  "That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it."         


        Not to be outdone, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn insisted, "The country's going to go nuts," he predicted, "because they're going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president and it's going to be a very serious situation." "You're going to see -- hopefully not -- but you could see instances of anarchy ... You could see violence."  Senator Ted Cruz urged congressional Republicans to fight back against President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, by refusing to confirm the president's nominees until he reverses course.  "If the president announces executive amnesty, the new Senate majority leader who takes over in January should announce that the 114th Congress will not confirm a single nominee -- executive or judicial -- outside of vital national security positions, so long as the illegal amnesty persists," Cruz wrote in a recent Politico Magazine op-ed.


            Once upon a time every American school child could recite from memory Emma Lazarus's poem, "The New Colossus:"

               Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 Although her words restated the official American mythology, the reality has always been quite different.                   

            From the very beginning, the earliest English settlers - Pilgrims and Puritans- waged war against the aboriginal population and appropriated the lands that the Indians had always believed that the "Great Spirit" had given to all men in common. Early Colonial legislation restricted the rights of Catholics, Jews, Quakers and dissenters to express their religious convictions and were intended to make them feel unwelcome. 


       In the 1840s, the Native American Party - the Know-Nothings -  emerged in the Northeastern United States in response to a climate of intolerance and fear that had been preceded by the burning and sacking of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834, and by frequent attacks upon Irish and other Catholic immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. Although the legislation was intended to last for 10 only years, it was renewed in 1892, made permanent in 1902, and was only finally repealed in 1943.


            Still later, the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890, which was reduced from a 3% cap set by the  prior Immigration Restriction Act of 1921, according to the Census of 1890. The law was enacted to restrict the immigration of Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans, and Jews. In addition, it restricted the immigration of Africans and prohibited the immigration of Arabs, East Asians, and Indians. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was "to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity."

             Depending upon whose statistics one wishes to accept, before the financial meltdown that began in 2008, there were anywhere from 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants present in the United States. Although these individuals violated American immigration law, their crimes were compounded by the thousands upon thousands of American employers who illegally employed and exploited them while feigning ignorance of their status as ineligible employees.

            There are at least three proposals that would reduce the influx of illegal immigrants into the U.S., enabled those who have met all immigration criteria to quickly receive green cards, and enable this country to control its borders without thousands of additional border patrol agents, a even more militarized border, and the expenditure of billions of additional dollars of taxpayer money.  


         First, current federal laws require that prospective employees present proof of citizenship or show that they are lawful alien residents. However, the fear of government control along with purported concerns about privacy and individual rights by privacy absolutists on the right and left have stymied the adoption of a very simple mechanism to ascertain citizenship status and to control immigration--a national identification card, which virtually all policy analysts concede would be effective. As an additional benefit, a national identification card would also quickly resolve all of the political posturing about alleged illegal voting.


          By way of contrast, the European democracies - with the exception of the U.K., Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Norway  - have all embraced the use of national ID cards with little difficulty or divisive political debate. In the United States, however, the debate focuses almost entirely upon concerns about alleged government intrusion and threats to privacy and individual liberty. Ironically,, the enormous and intrusive amount of personal financial information and data that Equifax, Transamerica and Expirian--three unelected, private, for-profit credit reporting agencies--currently compile and maintain on almost every American citizen barely elicits a critical comment.


           A second simple legislative fix would be to require all employees to use the U.S. Department of Labor's E-Verify Program to ascertain the status of all recent immigrants.  Sadly, however, this proposal is rejected by so many business owners who would no longer be able to employ - and exploit - undocumented aliens and claim ignorance as to their status.

             A third proposal - that might assuage concerns about continued out-sourcing by multi-national corporations - would be to restrict the number of H1B visas granted to foreign workers. Contrary to the claims of many IT executives, for example, there is no shortage of educated Americans able to perform IT jobs. Rather, there is an unwillingness by corporations in the Silicon Valley to pay competitive wages. Why should they need to, when H1B visas provide an endless supply of cheap, unquestioning workers whose legal status is little better than indentured servants?  


            The endless whining about a purported lack of skilled workers in the U.S. is a brazen effort to rewrite economic history and persuade a gullible public and policy-makers to ignore the fact that the jobs of 162,000 U.S. architects and engineers were shipped to third-world counties between 2000 and 2009, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics; and the 180,000 computer IT and programming professionals who, according to Yale University's Jacob Hacker, lost their jobs between 2000 and 2004. Where documented needs can be shown to actually exist, offering immediate green cards and eventual citizenship to educated aliens with identifiable skills that are in short-supply would benefit the long-term interests of the country, rather than the short-term interests of some employers.       

          Pervasive economic insecurity, stagnant wages, fear of the unknown and, yes, racism have all stocked the flames of resentment and made a rational debate about immigration infinitely more difficult. However, if this is a season to give thanks, it is also a time in which each of us should reflect upon the struggles and tribulations of our forebears. Whether they came her freely, in shackles on galley ships, or were dispatched by covetous landlords and consigned to the steerage of a ship, after great perseverance, they were able to carve out a life in this New World and improve the lives of their descendants.



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