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Americans all, immigrants most – a bit of reality

Being largely of Amerindian heritage (Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, probably Choctaw; let the record show my ancestors from Celtic lands, from the “dark continent,” weren’t so much immigrants as cargo), I find the recent uproar over illegal immigrants can be rather amusing.

Sorry to be more indigenous than thou, but America has had a problem with illegal immigrants since 1492 and the debate sometimes seems as if one group of people who don’t really belong here are trying to keep out another group.

In seriousness, I understand the necessity for a secure border – should’ve been more secure 500 years ago, but that horse has left the barn – to exclude evildoers (terrorists, human traffickers, smugglers); I don’t think we should be concerned about folks coming for construction jobs or to do gardening or to earn a living; monitoring immigration into national boundaries is the right of sovereign states. Of course, these points are obvious.

Americans have a proud tradition of welcoming the huddled masses from across the globe, who come bringing their hopes, desires for socioeconomic and political freedom, their varied cultures and enjoyable accents, enriching the United States figuratively and literally. American culture is richer for the diverse foods, clothing styles, languages and religions that immigrants continue to bring us.

And the U.S. economy needs immigrants. It’s mostly a myth that immigrants take jobs from those born here. To quote journalist Tony Brown: “immigrants do jobs Americans can’t do or won’t do.” Haven’t seen many Native-born Americans with career aspirations picking strawberries for 16 hours a day. Then again, if you want a neurosurgeon/computer/programmer cum financial analyst, you’ll need an immigrant, too.

Immigrants’ hard work produces income, which produces tax revenue – nearly all legal – and at least one-third of illegal immigrants pay taxes, regardless of their legal status. Noncitizens, legal or illegal, often don’t qualify for social services like welfare; but they earn money that supports local commerce, purchase houses, start small businesses. For a variety of cultural and linguistic reasons, immigrants are disproportionately entrepreneurial. This creates jobs and fuels economic growth.

The majority of immigrants – even the undocumented ones – are overwhelmingly law abiding too; newcomers to our country generally don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their stay here and their journey to legal citizenship. Doing crimes would do just that. And we’ll remind ourselves that the Sept. 11, 2001, highjackers, and the London and Madrid bombers, were legal immigrants or the offspring thereof.

Now to counter another stereotype: that immigrants send all their assets to the motherland. They often do send money overseas, which helps relatives and friends in the origin country and provides substantial contributions to the economies of nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba.

Many, of course, seek to return home as soon as possible. But immigrants, including the undocumented, tend to become parts of stable communities, with families, rotary memberships, lawn furniture, and all that. This means that most are in the United States to stay, invested in their new American life.

Pundits charge that today’s immigrants cannot or will not integrate into the American mainstream, stubbornly clinging to their own cultures and languages no matter how counterproductive that may be. This is not typically true. Overlooking the Pilgrims and the Jamestowners, immigrants characteristically acculturate over time; it’s a matter of survival.

For me, learning to speak a foreign language might be an exercise in politically correct multiculturalism; learning English and American customs is about employment, opening bank accounts, explaining symptoms to a doctor and being able to purchase needful goods and services (very American indeed!). This is a must for immigrants, documented or not, who usually adapt to this American life as fast as they can.

So what to do? This scion of ice age mammoth chasers, while no expert, has a few ideas.

The Kennedy-McCain idea of expediting the citizenship process for immigrants, including those already here illegally but otherwise in good standing (i.e. employed, no criminal history and so on), sounds like a start. This would just speed the process with a good way to handle the supply side of the equation.

Wholesale roundups and deportations wouldn’t work (way too “Third Reich” for my taste).

And the demand side? There’s been talk about penalties, fines for those who hire undocumented immigrants; which is fine, as far as that goes, which isn’t far – too hard to enforce and not without serious economic disruptions.

The proof we need immigrants to do the jobs immigrants are doing is that they’re doing them. However, one of the reasons illegal immigrants are often hired is because it’s perceived they will work for lower wages and benefits than other workers and because they can be compelled to work longer hours under worse conditions than other workers under threat of deportation.

The solution? Make all employers operating in the United States/majority-owned by U.S. interests provide all workers living wages and benefits commensurate with “industry standards” – whatever they are. This would price illegal workers the same as legal ones – flattening the playing field.

Whatever we do, I feel Americans should continue to welcome newcomers as we always have. It’s a bit late, by 500 years or so, to be Nativist.

Gil Pettigrew is a poet who resides in Miami, Fla.