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Perspectives on Immigration

 Perspectives on Immigration

The Know-Nothings were a powerful, semi-secret nativist movement in mid-19th century America. Their members were instructed that if questioned about their beliefs their standard reply should be “I know nothing” – an early version of what Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem about the numbing secrecy in his home place during the Troubles “Whatever you Say, Say Nothing.”

The movement condemned the arrival in America of hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics, fleeing the awful famines in Ireland in the middle of the century. Many came to America hungry and with no possessions, the detritus of a beaten people.

The Know-Nothings believed that this mass exodus of refugees from Ireland joined by a fair number of German Catholics indicated that Rome had designs on their homeland. They demanded new laws to keep the Catholics out and to mandate that new arrivals should wait twenty-five years before being eligible for citizenship and the right to vote.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick recently expressed similar opposition to American immigration proposals, calling them a Democrat plot. He talked on the Laura Ingraham show about a “silent revolution” to take over the country by promoting emigration from non-white countries in the South. “In 18 years, if every one of these immigrants had two or three children, you are talking about millions and millions of voters. Who do you think they are going to vote for?”

The poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric is resonating with many Americans. Donald Trump’s opening appeal to voters when he entered the presidential race in 2015 focused on the alleged damage being done by Mexicans in this country: “They are bringing drugs; they are bringing crime; they are rapists.”

This hateful talk finds many open ears. Blaming the foreigner, the stranger, has a long history. You might expect Americans to know better because the country is correctly identified as a nation of emigrants who built the United States and are still making a huge contribution.

Ironically, the places that are really hostile to immigrants do not have many living in their communities. In New York City where 37% of the residents were born abroad, there is little sentiment for narrow nativism. The plumber, the mailman and the teacher may well hail from Costa Rica or Haiti or Mexico, and nobody pays much attention to his or her place of origin.

The famous border wall is a symbol of neanderthal thinking. Pope Francis recognized this and admonished that a strong and healthy civilization focuses on opening doors of welcome not erecting walls of exclusion.

Facts about the contributions of immigrants need to be highlighted. People born abroad comprise about 15% of the American population, yet they are 80% more likely than those born in the United States to become entrepreneurs.

Accusations against immigrants of heightened criminal activity do not pass the reality test. An important study on this issue by the Cato Institute in 2016 showed that in Texas the homicide conviction rate for native-born Americans was 3.2 per 100,000 but just 1.8 among illegals in the state and half that again for the foreign-born who came legally.

First- and second-generation immigrants have started businesses all over the country, from local delicatessens to small construction companies to major tech firms. South Africa native Elon Musk built his Tesla plant in California, spawning over 50,000 jobs as well as injecting more than four billion into the local economy. The assertion that new arrivals leach jobs away from local workers is baseless.

Of the 122 Americans who won a Nobel prize since the start of this century, thirty-four were immigrants.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty” in wars against enemies of the United States. Around 3480 of these prestigious medals have been awarded to members of the American forces of all ethnic and national backgrounds since the medal was initiated in 1861. Amazingly, more than half of the recipients were Irish-Americans, of whom 257 were born in Ireland.

 In the light of all these statistics showing the valor and economic contributions of emigrants from all countries, it is astonishing that, according to a recent Pew study, 53% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats believe that immigrants have a negative impact on life in the United States.

I know many employers and company administrators - mostly of Irish descent – and I often ask them about their experiences with foreign-born employees. Without exception, they are loud in their praise.

Immigrant entrepreneurs account for about 25% of new patents, and contrary to popular perception, employees in foreign-owned companies earn slightly more than workers where the founder is native.

Silicon Valley, a glowing symbol of American ingenuity and success, is largely populated by Asian-American workers, a group that not long ago was treated dismally in California and elsewhere in the United States. They are now leading a boom in the global economy.

There are millions of unauthorized workers employed by small and big companies in the United States. They are wide open for exploitation by employers who get cheap labor and are not liable for these workers’ health insurance or social security payments.

Why are these companies not compelled to use the E-Verify system, recommended by the Department of Homeland Security, to ensure that every applicant for employment has working papers?

Most migrants, as in the past, leave their homelands because of dire circumstances – wars, tyrannical governments, gangs and now increasingly long flows of refugees caused by global warming. Some people dismiss them contemptuously as “marauding invaders” for attempting to get away from disaster to give their families a chance in life.

Listen to the voice of the Vietnamese woman who was asphyxiated in an enclosed truck in England as she tried to find a place to make her way in life. Before dying, she wrote a letter to her parents that in the biblical words from Proverbs would “move the heart of stone.” “I am sorry Mom that my path abroad did not succeed. I am dying because I can’t breathe. I love you Mom and Dad so much. I am sorry.”

The next poignant line from that biblical quote should resonate with Jews and Christians, all People of the Book, praying “And give us hearts of flesh.”  Unfortunately, compassion is in short supply in many quarters in Europe and America in dealing with refugees.

Staying with the bible, Deuteronomy mandates a clear moral imperative, demanding the respectful treatment of migrants: “And you are to remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt until the Lord redeemed you, and that is why I am giving this command.”

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


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