POSTED ON JULY 3, 2013:
Finding a place for Immigrants
Not 'keeping them in their place'
Every major city in the United States has "ethnic enclaves" --neighborhoods with high ethnic concentrations that are culturally distinct from the rest of the city. And Tulsa is no different.
For example, we have a very active Latino enclave on the east side of the city. Pretty much all of north Tulsa could also be considered an enclave due to the majority of African-American citizens who live there.
These ethnic enclaves allow immigrants to maintain a close-knit community and help them assimilate to this country's society while giving them a little piece of home. More established members of the community usually offer jobs, money, and an overall pipeline of guidance to the new immigrants.
Another important characteristic of the enclave are the small businesses that make up the economical foundation of the neighborhood. If you take a drive through east Tulsa, sometimes referred to as Little Mexico, you'll see rows of businesses with signs in Spanish. Just for the record, some of the best authentic Mexican restaurants are in east Tulsa, but I digress.
These neighborhoods are a response to increased immigration, and they serve as a springboard for many new immigrants. They bring with them an uncanny entrepreneurial spirit that breeds the type of economic self-sufficiency that one would think would be admired by us Americans. Still, immigrants like the folks living in east Tulsa find themselves in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't situation. If they are working, they are "stealing our jobs," but if they are not working, they are pilfering the welfare system. Regardless of what they may bring to the table economically or culturally, their very presence makes us "real" Americans feel a little uneasy.
Besides culture, there are also the perceived economic issues that are supposedly caused by immigrants. The myth that most immigrants are only good at performing menial jobs is way off. According to a recent Duke University study, foreign-born entrepreneurs are responsible for 25 percent of all U.S. technology startups over the past ten years. Also, a study by the business-backed Partnership for a New American Economy revealed that 18 percent of this country's Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and more than 40 percent by children of immigrants. In the medical field, one in five U.S. doctors is an immigrant. I can attest to this personally, as the last few doctors I have had over the last ten years has either been Asian or of Indian descent. The truth is our economy is able to absorb more high-tech professionals, specifically occupations in engineering, technology and science, than our education system actually produces which explains why so many scientist and engineers are immigrants.
So what is it about immigrants that rub us proud Americans the wrong way? First of all, their cultures are different, and Americans do not respond well to anything that is different. We do not take too kindly to change around these parts, especially if it is unsolicited. We expect complete assimilation and we place high demands on immigrants to drop their traditional norms. We want them to learn English and become what many immigrants refer to as "westernized." This expectation is totally at odds with the whole "melting pot" facade that we continue to promote to the rest of the world.
When Americans visit or take up residency in other countries, it's usually wise to learn the language and respect the culture of the host country. Does that mean that you are less than an American if you do this? Of course it doesn't. If one wants to be able to navigate in a foreign land successfully and be able to effectively communicate with the natives, it might be a good idea to assimilate a little bit. As I have mentioned before, some would argue that immigrants should do the same thing here in the United States and, truthfully, there is some validity to that argument, but to have the expectation that immigrants should give up their culture completely to become more "American" is just as silly as an American giving up their culture just because they are overseas.
Sometimes I think we despise immigrants out of pure envy because they tend to stick together and Americans don't really do that unless sports are involved, then we become raving maniacs who love to scream, "USA! USA!"
But the Very Best Manual Labor Jobs Are Being Taken From Us!
We are also under the assumption that because some immigrants are willing to work for low wages, they drive down wages for the American workers. The truth is wages for low-skilled workers have been in a decline, but according to a senior economist for the Dallas Federal Reserve, studies show the decline is largely unaffected by immigrants. Disparity of wages has nothing to do with someone being an immigrant or native born. At the end of the day, it boils down to education. Who knew?
Immigrant workers often take jobs that most Americans perceive as beneath them. Jobs like crop pickers, custodial services, and sanitation workers need people to fill these jobs and high-school-educated, English-speaking citizens may not necessarily want these positions. Case in point, when the state of Georgia initiated a crackdown on illegal immigrants in 2011, causing many of them to be deported or leave the state, there was actually a shortage of labor for the state's farms.
There is also the myth that immigrants are a drain on our economy. During the '90s, half of all new workers were immigrants who were not only filling gaps left by American workers in both the low-level and high-level skilled jobs, but many started their own businesses that created jobs for foreign born and American workers, thereby contributing to a thriving economy. The net benefit of immigration to the United States is estimated at $10 billion annually. That doesn't sound like a drain to me.
Still, there is yet another myth that immigrants send all their money back to their home countries. Yes, some immigrants do send money back home, but this myth totally discounts the consumer spending of immigrant households and the $162 billion in tax revenue to U.S. federal, state, and local government that is contributed by their businesses. All immigrants pay taxes whether they are undocumented or not through property tax if they own a home or indirectly if they are renting. Again, America is still reaping the benefits even if some of those dollars are being sent home.
Another claim that some of us Americans make about immigrants is that they come here to take advantage of our welfare system. In fact, according to a Reason-Rupe poll released in March of this year, almost 45 percent of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, mind you -- believe that foreign-born individuals are here primarily for government benefits. This myth has been perpetuated frequently even though, according to the Agriculture Department who administers food stamps, Latinos in particular have increasingly migrated to states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. These states happen to have the most restrictive benefits programs but have an abundance of jobs as opposed to traditional gateway states like New York and California which have relatively generous programs. The 10 states that have experienced the largest increase to their immigrant population between 2000 and 2009 spent far less money on public assistance per capita compared to the 10 states with the slowest growing immigrant population.
Immigrants come to America for several reasons -- to reunite with their family, to get a quality education, to work, and so on. They are not here to drain our social services. We have enough folks right here in the states to do that. If someone is ambitious enough to uproot themselves from their home country for better opportunities, why would they suddenly want to come to America and not work at all, even though they would make more money by working? Duh.
So here's my question: if immigrants can achieve status beyond low-skilled jobs, there is no evidence that they bring down wages, they apparently add to our economy as opposed to draining it, and the myth that all they want is welfare is patently false, then why do we have such a problem with immigrants?
Oh, that's right. They're all criminals. At least, that is what some of us brilliant Americans think. Okay, maybe I'm being a little hyperbolic. Let me clarify my statement. We just think the undocumented ones are criminals. Some of our brightest elected officials continue to link undocumented immigrants to higher crime rates, but some social scientists predictably disagree.
Robert Sampson, a scientist at Harvard University, told National Public Radio that "you don't migrate to the United States from countries around the world on a whim. It takes planning and for the most part, it is driven by economic motivations. People want a better life. They're seeking to get ahead. That dream is not something they're likely to risk by getting arrested. And those are the very factors that tend to be associated with lower crime." Wow, that sounds almost logical.
Sampson and his colleagues examined more than 3,000 violent crimes committed in Chicago, a city known for its high criminal activity, from 1995 to 2003 by studying police records, conducting surveys with residents and procuring census data. What they found was that first-generation Latino immigrants were 45 percent less likely to commit a violent act than third-generation native born Americans. Even more interesting is that the second-generation immigrants were 22 percent less likely to be violent. Sampson goes on to say that immigrant communities are often responsible for revitalizing the urban neighborhoods they live in. He also added that "the longer one is exposed to American culture, the more likely you are to participate in violence." Again, I know this sounds way too logical to many of us, but this comes from a scientist. Scientists know things. It's what they get paid to do.
Your Papers, Please
Okay, so let's talk about the fuss being raised about undocumented immigrants. Yes, there are approximately 11 million individuals living in the United States without authorization. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that somewhere between six and seven million undocumented immigrants came to the United States via border entry. Between four and five million illegal immigrants entered the United States with a legal visa but remained in the states after the time of admission expired. We refer to this method as the "visa overstay." Are these methods in line with the law? Of course, they're not. No one is denying that. The question is why don't these so-called "illegal immigrants" come into the states legally?
Well, it could have something to do with the fact that the United States immigration system sucks. It provides very limited channels for legal permanent migration, especially for low-skilled workers. The current system's criteria are based on three concepts: family reunification, individuals who are highly trained in a skill that is in short supply here in the states, and those that are escaping political persecution. The annual limit for permanent immigrants is 675,000, which does not include spouses or unmarried minor children, with another 480,000 visas allotted for family reunification and only 140,000 allocated for employment-related purposes. If you do the math, it's apparent that the current system with its limited number of available visas makes it almost impossible for the majority of low-skilled immigrant workers to legally and permanently enter the country to work. There is plenty of demand and not enough supply.
Even highly skilled immigrants have a hard time migrating legally. According to a report released last year by the National Foundation for American Policy, "skilled foreign nationals have seen no improvement in their prospects for obtaining green cards and, in fact, wait times are likely to increase in employment-based immigration categories." Due to the limitation of the number of visas available, wait times for approval of a green card can take months or even years.
Let's not forget about the American employers. They play a huge part in the so-called "illegal immigration problem." Employers in the states have been purposely hiring unauthorized workers for years, paying them higher wages than they could ever make in their home country which is prime motivation for them to cross the border. Again, these are American employers that are doing this. Undocumented individuals are not going to join a union, protest low wages, demand benefits, or even complain about unsafe working conditions because of the fear of being found out. The majority of them just want to make enough money to take care of their families, yet somehow they are vilified more than the employers who hired them.
In several cases, employers have purposely cheated these individuals out of agreed-upon compensation. This works great for the employer because if the undocumented individuals have a grievance, who are they going to file the grievance with? Filing a claim could possibly get them deported and employers know that. Not only are these businesses breaking the law by hiring these individuals in the first place, but they can also fatten their pockets even more so by not paying them. Again, American workers can't bemoan the presence of undocumented individuals allegedly "taking their jobs" without recognizing who is giving them these jobs in the first place.
This issue is also being felt closer to home as well. Oklahoma as a state gained national attention in 2007 with one of the strictest, iron-fisted pieces of legislation on illegal immigration this side of Arizona. That's saying a lot. The Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, better known as House Bill 1804, did exactly what it was assigned to do--put panic in the hearts of undocumented and legal Latino immigrants in the state. Why would legal immigrants be panicked, you ask? Well, a lot of these families have a mixture of both legal and undocumented members; therefore, to keep the family together, 1804 forced them to leave to neighboring states. Those who chose to stay lived in fear. Many Tulsa businesses lost an extraordinary amount of employees, customers, and money as a direct result of the controversial legislation, particularly farmers, landscapers, builders, and the service industry.
Rep. Randy Terrill was the outspoken author of the law that made it a felony to assist or transport any undocumented person for commercial purposes, prohibited undocumented immigrants from getting a driver's license or any form of state identification, and directed law enforcement to step up cooperation with federal authorities on immigration enforcement. So instead of fighting crime like the police were supposed to be doing, this law turned them into immigration agents, giving them the latitude to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Can anyone say "racial profiling"?
While many in the state championed Rep. Terrill, believing that the state would benefit financially from illegal immigrants leaving, others believed this law provided an opening for simmering anti-immigrant sentiments to flourish in Oklahoma. There just seemed to be a palpable mean-spiritedness to the bill even to the most casual observer.
By 2013, the law lost a lot of its bite. A federal judge struck down a provision in the law that required private employers to check the immigration status of all new hires in 2008. In 2011, the state Supreme Court ruled against the part of the bill that denied in-state tuition to undocumented college students. Although many of the measure are still on the books, many of the Latino immigrants, documented and undocumented, have quietly returned to the state, so, really, in retrospect, was it all worth it? Was it worth it for us as a state to look even more racist and backwards then we already appeared to be to the rest of the world except maybe Arizona?
Look, we can all be outraged about undocumented immigrants, hold anti-immigrant rallies, and blame them for all of America's problems, but what good is that going to do? These folks are here and whether you want to admit it or not, the majority of them are law-abiding, hard-working people who just want to provide for their families. We are not going to be able to catch and deport 11 million people and if we do, the economic ramifications could be disastrous for many industries in this country. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the specific industries that would be affected the most are the service industry, which has 32 percent of unauthorized workers, construction (19 percent), sales and administrative support (12 percent), and management, business, and professional industries (10 percent).
It is so easy for many of us to simplify this complex issue. Frustration with the current immigration system has caused some of us to stereotype all immigrants. Yes, in a perfect world, the system would work efficiently and every immigrant would have the opportunity to enter the states legally. Even if that was the case, a small, loud, obnoxious contingent of America would still find something wrong with these folks being here. The reality is that our system is flawed and a lot of immigrants are desperate for opportunity. Do I have all the answers? No, I don't, but I know for sure that having a negative attitude about it is not going to lead to a solution. The immigration reform debate will definitely be ratcheted up a notch this summer for sure. I'm a little pessimistic about Washington getting this one right, but stranger things have happened.
The truth is that most Americans have a negative view of immigrants whether they are legal or not. If you are from a country other than America, you are a suspect, and your citizenship is always questioned. On one hand, I am not foolish enough to deny that some of America's most tragic events (i.e., 9/11 terrorist attacks, the recent Boston bombings, etc.) were concocted by individuals of foreign descent, but I am also not foolish or shallow enough to think that every immigrant is a potential terrorist. Bad people are bad because they are bad, not because of their ethnicity or what country they come from. Makes sense, doesn't it?
I was born and raised in this country. I did not come over from a foreign place looking for opportunity. Yet I am what this country would call a "minority," and my experiences with discrimination and racism, especially here in Oklahoma, might explain my empathy for the immigrant experience. I can't imagine having to deal with some of the ugliness that I have personally experienced from other Americans plus the extra layer of contempt that is thrown at a person from a different country.
I have two kids that I love very much. I have high expectations for both of them because I see their potential. When they are performing below their potential, I have to show them some tough love to get them back on track. The toughness I show them does not diminish my love for them. The same can be said for how I feel about this country. Yes, it may seem that I am a little tough on my fellow Americans, but that is because we seem to have forgotten our history and what we are supposed to stand for. Our country was never supposed to be about keeping people out. It was built on diversity and inclusion and we are not exhibiting those concepts on a daily basis. It should not take tragedies for us to show the heart of America. So, yes, I don't have a problem giving a swift kick to the butt of our collective psyche and demand that we get our act together. Heck, it is my patriotic duty to do so.
So, as we celebrate the Fourth of July with the usual mixture of patriotism, barbecue, and explosives, let's not forget what this country should be representing versus what we have been representing thus far. We are a nation of immigrants, plain and simple, so it makes no sense for us to have a problem with immigrants regardless of what ethnicity they are or what country they come from. To do so is strangely cannibalistic.
These people are an essential part of the American experience. Let's make sure our elected officials do their job and make some changes to a broken immigration system and, at the same time, make a pathway to citizenship for those that are contributing positively to our economy.
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