Tired of your poor

“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

These days it seems it is we who are tired of the influx of immigrants coming from the poorer countries south of our border.

Sure, I hate hearing “press 1 for English” as much as anyone else. And the quixotic mission of the Minutemen to guard what parts of the Mexican border they can is, in a word, adorable. But no matter how much we dislike it or how much we complain to our elected officials, the flow of migrants across the border is inexorable.

This became clear to me as I was reading a feature article in this month’s Mother Jones magazine about the struggles faced by illegal immigrants as they make their way north (“Exodus: Border-Crossers Forge a New America,” September/October 2006). Before you make any assumptions – even I did because Mother Jones is a liberal publication – the article I read was not a passionate defense of migrant rights. It was not full of rhetoric and propaganda.

Far from it – the article was a dispassionate analysis of both sides of the immigration struggle. The only purpose it served was to awaken me to the reality on the ground. It put together bits and pieces of information I’ve heard over the years into one complete portrait.

Basically, the situation as it now stands is something like this: originally coming only from Mexico, immigrants are increasingly coming from points farther south in Central and South America. They hitch rides on so-called “death trains,” clinging to the tops of freight trains and sometimes falling to certain injury – or death. After taking whatever transportation they can to the border, they face a miles-long journey through searing desert and punishing landscape. Getting caught by the border patrol is the least of their worries. It is a matter of sheer survival.

What went through my mind after seeing what these people have to go through to get here is this: if they can travel thousands of miles from home and risk their lives in a barren landscape, what difference will a wall on the border make?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to secure our border. I think it is a worthwhile endeavor to do so. But I think despite even our best efforts, people will still find way to get through. In computer terminology, it is the ultimate firewall hack. You have a border thousands of miles long with millions of people trying to get through. It’s like putting your finger in an open water spigot: some will still leak out on the sides.

So what do we do? We must face the reality that the immense economic opportunity afforded by American jobs compared to the poverty that exists south of the border is too powerful a lure to take an enforcement-only approach. Any immigration reform this nation undertakes must take this reality into account to be effective. While focusing on feel-good measures like walling off the border may be politically popular, we ignore this reality behind illegal immigration at our peril.

One of the primary complaints of those who oppose illegal immigration (a complaint I share) is that they don’t learn to speak English. Unlike previous immigrants to our country, they are not assimilating; they are maintaining their native culture.

Many people who criticize the migrants’ insistence on their own culture, however, forget one key aspect about previous immigrants: they were forced to assimilate by “Americanization” classes, a predominant anti-immigrant atmosphere and – more recently under legal immigration – the requirement to learn English and American history to become U.S. citizens.

As a country that recognizes multiculturalism, I don’t think we should necessarily “Americanize” immigrants, but it does seem that as long as we do nothing, these immigrants will continue to remain largely isolated and hold to themselves as a separate community.

In this light, the “path to citizenship” argument makes the most sense. By providing the incentive of achieving U.S. citizenship status, we will provide a way for people to choose to assimilate without discrimination or coercion. They will learn English; they will learn about our history as a nation. Otherwise, the problem of illegal immigration will continue unabated – not just the flow of migrants, but their de facto segregation here at home resulting from their sub-legal status.

It is neither practical nor humane to round up millions of migrants for deportation. It is not practical to rely on securing the border alone. It is practical, however, to provide migrants with an opportunity to participate in the American landscape as true Americans. This way we get to keep our country; English will continue to unify our nation; and migrants will get the economic opportunity they’ve been looking for.

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