In Defense of immigrants
In the past year we’ve seen an obvious hostility towards immigrants, from “rapists and murderers” to the pointless and counterproductive travel ban.
Because native-born Americans by definition aren’t immigrants, they often have some whacky ideas about the processes and circumstances attendant to starting one’s life anew in the United States. The further right one’s ideology clicks the deeper the ignorance. Let’s address this.
Central to the Trump train’s argument is the myth about crime. Actually – when it comes to crime, immigrants are about half as likely to commit crimes as locals. With successive generations, presumably with more assimilation, their crime rate returns to the norm. Hard statistics there, not Fox opinions, which may be a surprise to the writers of Hannity’s shouting points or the president’s handlers.
The “welfare drain” idiocy is also a tiresome favorite of the right wing. It’s a pity these bar stool experts don’t actually understand the law. Here’s what benefits are available to new Americans:
The few immigrants who come as refugees/asylees do receive an ungenerous stipend from Uncle Sam for six months after arrival, a debt they pay back in taxes later; unemployment among immigrants is lower than locals. Ordinary legal immigrants have almost no recourse to any public funds, and illegals get nothing other than basic state schooling and the right to emergency medical treatment, for which they are still financially liable. Again, despite Hannity’s shouting, there are no “free laptops for illegals.”
Additionally, illegals can’t have the following; any government or “licensed” jobs (plumber, hairdresser, nurses’ assistant, commercial or taxi driver, etc.), a pay-check (only cash) or student loans. They can’t hold insurance policies, mortgages, union memberships, drivers’ licenses in most states, or bank accounts. That last one is a dozy. Being unbanked is a disaster because aside from other inconveniences (no credit cards, interest, etc.) the unbanked are targets for robbers who know illegal immigrants have to carry cash. Illegal and some legal immigrants are afraid of being deported by any contact with police if they report crimes, making them even juicier targets. An aside: that’s why ending sanctuary cities and severing the trust between immigrant communities and police is a terrible idea, as many sheriffs and police agree. Illegals really live in a dark shadow world of obstacles, hassles, and lowered opportunities. It’s no gravy train.
Illegals’ time here doesn’t go toward US citizenship, only legitimate immigrants with visas and green cards can apply for that after five years. And all must obey the law, pursuant to Clinton’s 1996 laws throwing out all criminal aliens. Additionally, when it comes to Trump’s “beautiful” (and now supposedly transparent) wall, it’s worth noting that ¼ of illegals here arrive and are admitted legally, then overstay. A wall won’t stop that.
“My ancestors came here legally!” is an oft-heard argument which allows Trumpites to separate their direct ancestors from today’s immigrants. And it would be relevant if at any time before the 1950s coming to the US wasn’t a no-brainer. Unless “my ancestors” actually died of TB in the lobby at Ellis Island or tried to shoot the clerk there, it was almost impossible to come here illegally before 1950, unless they were Chinese. So this “my ancestors respected the law” whine ignores that the entire legal landscape has changed utterly since the 1950s.
Thus, in the past 70 years the quality of legal immigrants has gone way up because the system is so sorted and filtered now. As for refugees, they are already vetted so “extremely” only swimming here is a harder way to immigrate. Unlike in 1900, these days an illiterate peasant in a godforsaken hell can’t just chip the dung off his face, pack his steamer trunk and head for America. Our modern immigration system is incredibly picky as to who gets that lucky stamp (now a sticker) in his passport. There are all sorts of exclusionary categories: diseases, poverty, small or large crimes committed, and even arguably a religion now, that can have a potential New American turned away.
I have no sociological data to back this up but I feel a greater sense of patriotism among immigrants than the native born. After all, immigrants voted with our feet to live here rather than arriving by the default of a lucky birthplace. We endured – at the sharp end of the immigration spectrum — horrible deserts, rivers, and coyotes. Many die. Or, at the softer end, we jumped through legal hoops and endured quotas, waiting, medical tests, criminal record checks with one’s local police including fingerprints, and fees, fees and more fees. Every foreign-born person you know who came here legally has a big folder at home with all their “stuff” in it. Mine is a bulging black leather satchel in my safe, filled with yellowed papers and certificates, photocopies and photos of me as a dashing young blade with more hair.
Something native-born Americans often fail to understand is the psychological dynamics of immigration. A green card is a precious achievement some people literally die trying to get. As an immigrant your whole village, your family and your school chums are in awe and envy of your luck and achievement: “You better not screw it up, Pedro/Mohammed/David!” There is no loser like a man, given a chance his peers back home didn’t have, who messed it up by being bankrupted, deported, or falling into crime and failure. The scorn “back home” which deportees experience and of which immigrants are always mindful of is a powerful motivator to do well. You must succeed. Perhaps this accounts for the lower level of crime and unemployment among immigrants?
If you’re unconvinced by the above, I feel sorry for you. Because you will never experience the unforgettable joy of getting up one morning, putting on a suit you couldn’t really afford, and going to a federal courthouse. In that court you’ll never stand with a bunch of strangers and multicolored foreigners, and in front of a judge and a flag that was once not yours, swear that oath to protect and defend your new Constitution. You’ll never know that happiest day of your life and you won’t have the gold embossed certificate proudly framed above your mantelpiece next to the stars and stripes….like I do.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City who writes on international politics and law for Forbes, Themoderatevoice, and Couterpunch. He immigrated to US (legally) in 1994, naturalized in 2000, and briefly practiced immigration law.