March 29, 2006
A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS TRIES TO SLAM SHUT THE GOLDEN DOOR
Every American came from somewhere else. So why are we cracking down on this generation of immigrants?
::::::::DUMMERSTON, Vt. My grandfather, Johann Holhut, arrived at Ellis Island on June 15, 1923.
A 25-year-old World War I veteran, he left his home in Roth, Germany, to find a better life in a little farming town in western Massachusetts where one of his uncles lived.
He married and started a family and eventually built up a successful housepainting business. Many Americans can tell similar stories of how their parents or grandparents came over on the boat and passed through Ellis Island to begin a new life in a country that seemed to have limitless opportunities.
My grandfather, who died in 1986 after more than six decades in America, was lucky. He managed to get to America before the golden door slammed shut. Between 1870 and 1920, nearly 20 million immigrants came to the United States. By the end of the 1920s, strict limits were set on how many immigrants could come from Europe the result of decades of anti-immigration hysteria.
Even though the amazing economic and cultural advances of America were fueled by each successive wave of immigrants, it seems that in every generation, those "other" people get blamed for all the ills of society.
And so it is with the 12 million people who are now living illegally in the United States. They are no different from my grandfather and his generation. They are all looking for a chance to do better, and most are willing to work their butts off to achieve that dream.
They do the nation's dirty, dangerous and physically demanding jobs. They live in our communities and work hard and pay taxes, yet live in fear that they will be deported at any moment.
Even in a place as white as Vermont, immigrants are critical to our economy. It's estimated there are more than 2,000 Mexicans working on the state's farms. Vermont farmers want to hire local help, but they say it is virtually impossible to find people who want to do the low-wage, dawn to dusk labor that's required on a dairy farm. The Mexicans have become a critical part of the state's farm economy and without them, many farms would go under.
While the economic importance of the undocumented is undeniable, so is the ease in which political demagogues love to pick on immigrants. After all, they have no political representation and no legal protections. That's why the Republicans in the House rammed through a bill that would make one's undocumented presence in the United States a felony and build a 700-mile wall between the United States and Mexico.
The Republican emphasis in Congress seems to be on hiring more Border Patrol agents and building walls. The reality is that between 1990 and 2000, the Border Patrol nearly tripled in size, but the rate of illegal immigration kept rising.
As long as there is no workable, efficient system that allows people to legally migrate to the United States, people will continue to find ways to come in illegally. Congress needs recognize this and reject the idea that more agents, taller barriers and draconian laws won't solve the problem.
What's needed is a plan that grants some sort of legal status to the people already here who have already established themselves as working, taxpaying Americans, as well as a system for documenting migrant labor that includes a clear and achievable path to becoming citizens if they choose to.
The Senate plan appears to offer this solution, but the process they propose would make it difficult to nearly impossible for the currently undocumented to become citizens.
No doubt, our borders need to be more secure. But as long as the United States is seen as the promised land by the millions of people who try to come here every year, there is going to be an immigration problem. Criminalizing the people that are here and threatening with arrest and deportation is not the answer.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.