Tuesday, June 20, 2006

ISSUE: Immigration

A friend has posted opinions about illegal immigration, and her ideas have motivated me to write more about this touchy issue. I don't disagree with all of her points, so I will just address three statements/ideas that I found troubling--learn English, give back the jobs, get legal. I’m not saying the following concepts are necessarily wrong, I just think they aren’t as simple as they may appear. I have concerns about these three ideas:

Idea #1. If you come here, learn English.

I think it’s a good idea for people who live in the U.S. to learn English. But I also think we need to be very patient with those who cannot speak it well. Let me explain why I chose the word patience.

I lived in South Korea for three years. In that time I only learned survival Korean. During those three years, only 2 people get mad at me because of my poor Korean, and one of those was drunk. More commonly people played along with my charades and broken Korean. They were very patient.

I’m not very smart, so lets say the average person can become fluent after living in a foreign country for three years.

Every year a little under 1,000,000 immigrants come to the U.S. (plus illegal immigrants). If it does take the average person three years to become fluent, then what would this look like?

Year 1: 1,000,000 new immigrants (no English ability)

Year 2: 1,000,000 new immigrants (no English)
1,000,000 from Year 1 (survival English)

Year 3: 1,000,000 new immigrants (no English)
1,000,000 from Year 2 (survival English)
1,000,000 from Year 1 (broken English)

So even if every new immigrant is learning English, there will still be roughly 3,000,000 people in the U.S. every year who’s English ability ranges from nothing to broken. When we meet people, we don’t know if they’ve been here for 5 months or 5 years. We don't know if they are studying English or not. Therefore, we need to be patient with everyone we meet.

(The assumptions of 1,000,000 immigrants per year, 3 years for language proficiency, and the idea that all immigrants know no English are quite debatable. I’m just making a scenario to approximate the situation.)

Idea #2. Immigrants are taking our jobs.

Let me address poor immigrants first. As a young teen, I worked in the berry fields in Oregon. There were basically two groups of people--young Caucasians and Latinos of all ages. There were a few white adults, and we wished they would go home because they were exceptionally rude and crass. I don’t think the white owners were turning away the other white applicants. I believe most citizens of any skin color didn’t want to pick berries in the hot sun all day. I don’t think the migrant workers (legal status unknown) were taking jobs from citizens.

But not all immigrants are poor. And this will lead to the third idea. Well-trained, well-off immigrants can often find good jobs. Maybe they are taking jobs that citizens could have, but these are not the illegal immigrants, and illegal immigration was the focus of my friend’s blog.

Let me make a generalization (and generalizations are edgy, I know)--the majority of illegal immigrants are poor and many (most?) legal immigrants are not poor. Why? Next idea…

Idea #3. Go home, get legal, and then come back.

Most illegal immigrants are here for a reason--they couldn’t come legally. It is very difficult to get into the U.S. even on tourist and study visas. After 9/11even world renowned scientists were having trouble getting into the U.S. I remember reading about scientific conferences that were suddenly being held in other countries because foreign attendees were unable to get U.S. visas. My Korean friends had a hard time getting U.S. visas. They had to show extensive documentation explaining that they had compelling reasons to return to Korea (family ties, job, etc.). Those who wanted to study here had to prove financial backing. Therefore, poor people have an exceptionally difficult time getting here legally. Family ties are one significant way they can enter, but for the most part, their demographics are screened out.

George Bush understands this problem, and it is one element that he wants to change about the system. He understands that the U.S. benefits from their labor (and that they can begin building new lives), but that we don’t have a legal way to get them here. They just can’t go home, get legal, and then return (never mind the logistical nightmare of trying to transport such a mass exodus and return). [I can't believe I'm defending Bush on a social issue!]

Interestingly, George Borjas, a Cuban immigrant economist at Harvard, argues that we should do the opposite (Heaven‘s Door). He recommends that we increase the “skill filter” so we accept fewer untrained immigrants. I believe this would only exacerbate the problem.

Executive Summary:

1. It takes time to learn English, so we need to always be patient with people.
2. Illegal immigrants are not taking jobs away from citizens.
3. The immigration filtering system makes it very difficult for poor people to enter the U.S. legally.


C Emming said...

Hey, Jeffrey —
Since you've been mucking up my blog with your ideas, I thought I would add to yours somewhat. Here's a great excerpt a friend posted that speaks to your point. These are the ideas of Theodore Roosevelt on immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907.

"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin."

"But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all."

We have no room for but one flag, the American flag...
We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...
and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

-Theodore Roosevelt-

Jeff said...

I think my friend would give that 2 Kudos, and I nod in agreement with less fanfare.

Thanks for mucking things up! Where is that quote from?