Move over, Emma Lazarus

In my last posting I mentioned that the US does not face the problems of a declining population confronting countries like Russia, Japan, and Italy. I noted that the US population is continuing to grow, and that most of this growth is a consequence of immigration. Although immigration will help us avoid many (mainly economic) problems, it also presents us with a number of (mainly social and political) challenges.

Not surprisingly, immigration has given rise to some heated debates, epitomized recently by the actions of and reactions to some recent decisions by Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, Virginia. Prompted by local concern at increasing immigrant populations in the area, the Board enacted some of the strictest anti-illegal immigration policies in the country. New laws would deny certain county services to illegal immigrants and to direct the police to enforce immigration laws. Supporters of a get-tough approach argue that they “are responding to grassroots outrage over the proliferation of gangs, school overcrowding, reduced emergency-room access, neighborhoods blighted by old vehicles, trash-strewn yards, houses bulging with occupants, and countless signs in Spanish.” Critics argue that the new policies will result in racial profiling by country officials, make undocumented immigrants afraid to report crimes, and hurt the county economically by driving foreign-born consumers, business owners, and workers away.

I think that it is helpful, in trying to make sense of this debate (and, indeed, all debates) to begin by recognizing that there are decent people on all sides of the issue who are motivated by sincere and passionately held beliefs and perspectives. This isn’t primarily a debate between xenophobes and those who support basic human rights, or between upholders of the law and lawbreakers. On one side are people who believe that their quality, way of life, and economic interests are threatened by illegal immigration, and that the way to counter this threat is by cracking down hard on those who have entered the country illegally. On the other are people who argue that they are decent people trying to earn an honest living, taking jobs that native-born residents are unwilling to take, and contributing to the local and national economy in the process.

Bonnie, a student in Geog 101 and a resident of Prince William country, summed up the dilemma well in an e-mail she sent me:

I have lived in the county for nearly 20 years and I have watched it grow from a suburban area with quaint southern charm to this vastly diverse and large suburb of Washington, D.C. I use to be able to pronounce the names of my child’s classmates, but cannot do so often now. I watch the county health department grow to this chaotic mess, where people line up for hours. I have watched as the neighborhood 7-11 became a day laborer’s pick up point. I have stood by as I watched the county school system become more and more burdened with teaching immigrant children English. Most of these services are being paid for in part by my tax dollars.

What the county proposes, the right to look into a person’s immigration status when stopped for even a minor traffic violation is dangerous. I side with the fact that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be receiving services that they haven’t paid for, especially those other pay for with tax dollars. A good friend of my teenage daughter made a interesting comment that being a Hispanic teen, here legally, in fact born in the U.S. so he is a legal citizen, that the police could easily stop him and look into his immigration, but what documents are they looking for? He can’t present a passport, doesn’t have one. He can’t present a visa, doesn’t have one, and it’s not as if Americans have made it a habit to carry around their birth certificates. Will the county’s decision lead to racial profiling? If the resolution is enforced, will Prince William County be the next site for a major civil rights riot? Personally, I am a little scared to see what is going to happen next.

Concerns that neighborhoods, schools, politics, and the economy are being changed by illegal immigration are real, particularly for those who see the changes happening around them. Long time residents see their way of life threatened, and it makes them uncomfortable. I wish it didn’t.

While I respect the bona fides of those on all sides of the issue, I can’t claim to be a dispassionate observer of this debate. I am an immigrant myself, and my background, political ideology, academic study, and experience lead to my firm belief that immigration is to the ultimate benefit of the US. I believe this for several reasons:

  1. Aside from a very small number of Native Americans, the vast majority of us are here as a result of immigration. I cannot accept the argument that “immigration was a good idea until I or my ancestors got here,” after which it suddenly became a bad idea.
  2. Diversity enriches our society. We should welcome racial, ethnic, cultural, ideological, religious, intellectual, culinary and, yes, linguistic variety as a strength, not a weakness of our country.
  3. Migrants come to the US — legally and otherwise — because we ask them to. We invite them here when we insist on cheaper vegetables, lower hotel rates, economical landscaping, lower construction costs, and affordable frozen chicken. Perhaps businesses should give consumers a choice: “Hotel room serviced by undocumented housekeeping staff: $80. Serviced by documented workers: $100.” “Strawberries $3 (undocumented pickers) $5 (documented.) “New homes: $250,000 or $280,000.” I have little doubt what choice most people would make.
  4. Most migrants come to the US for economic reasons. They can make a better living here — and better support families back home — even by working at the sub-minimum wages many receive in the US. If we really want to stem immigration, a good way to do so would be by tackling its primary cause, poverty. A good start might be to provide large scale assistance to create jobs and reduce poverty in Latin America (the primary source of migrants to the US.)
  5. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an unskilled migrant to enter the US legally. The reason so many foreign-born people are here illegally is that it’s virtually impossible for most to enter any other way. Just getting a tourist visa to visit the US is complicated and expensive enough; getting a work-related or an immigrant visa is essentially impossible for most of those who are now here illegally (The Washington Post reported today that even foreign artists are being deterred from visiting the US by onerous and expensive visa requirements.)
  6. The population of the US is growing, and will continue to grow, as a result of immigration. This means that we will be spared the kind of economic crisis facing many other developed countries, whose populations are likely to decline in coming years. Their populations are getting older, pension, social security, and medical expenses are rising steeply, and the number of workers and taxpayers is declining. If we drastically reduce immigration, we would face similar problems. And finally,
  7. I believe that harassing, hounding, and deporting migrants is, from a moral point of view, the wrong thing to do. It breaks up families, it denies people the opportunity to make a living and improve their economic circumstances, and it makes it more difficult for them to feed and educate their children. We are the wealthiest country in the world, and we can afford to share.

But if my views don’t prevail, and the Prince William County example is replicated around the country, perhaps it’s time to change that poem on the Statue of Liberty…

Move over, Emma Lazarus

Give me your rested, your rich,
Your tiny elite, yearning to make more
Your creme de la creme, not your country’s poor,
Send these, the well-housed, by business class to me,
You are most welcome here (if you first pay a fee.)

(P.S. Did you know that about 12% of the US population is foreign born? That 42.4% of these arrived between 1990 and 2000? That 40.3% of foreign born residents are US citizens? You can find these facts, and a lot more, at the US Census Bureau’s web site.)


  1. Heather Thompson May 21, 2009
  2. Maya Bailey July 11, 2010

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