Thursday, February 27, 2014

More thoughts on immigration

An Ethical Musings' reader, Mary Mainwaring, sent me these thoughts on immigration after reading my previous post, offering provocative personal testimony as well as highlighting some of the reasons the immigration system needs overhauling:

As a double immigrant (I emigrated from Britain to Canada, then from Canada to the US), I have thought about this topic for many years. Both Canada and the USA were built by immigrants, literally. The architects, engineers, and laborers were all immigrants. Some were welcome to stay on; some (like Chinese laborers) were not so welcome.

Both countries had mixed feelings about immigration. Whenever there was a substantial group of immigrants from somewhere, they tended to live together and continue to use their own language and customs. Sometimes this caused tension with others in the area. In the US, slaves were deliberately mixed with others so that they did not share a common language. Ghettos were made in cities out of areas where Jewish and other immigrants lived.

American theory became the ‘melting pot’. All were welcome as long as they would become ‘American’. School (in English) became compulsory and the myths about early American history, American freedom, and American enterprise were taught there. Independent men strode out to forge their own future in this story, making good out of nothing.

So in cities like New York, there were areas of the city that housed the poor recent immigrant community; the story was that these changed hands because the old group assimilated and ‘made good’. Once they had found the American way of life, they themselves or their children born here became real Americans.

In Canada, the situation was different because of the large group of French speaking Canadians (the origin of the name is French) who were there before most of the English-speaking immigrants. So there were two languages and two cultures in Canada from its founding. Latterly, the presence of Inuit and other First Nations people, particularly in the North, have been recognized. Canadians used the image of the ‘mosaic’.

Now that the US has a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants so that parts of the country operate in Spanish, there is a different situation from the past experience of immigration. California and other areas in the West are now supporting Spanish populations. (Ironic, since many of the areas now doing so used to be part of Mexico). This means that the language of everyday life in these areas is no longer English. To some minds, ‘they’ have ‘taken over’.

The fear this brings to the English speakers is obvious in some of the rhetoric, often played out in the ideas about immigration being ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. Unfortunately, the use of shorthand labels for the people involved such as illegal immigrant or undocumented immigrant devalue the person and make it easier to express extreme prejudice against them. They are taking ‘our’ jobs, for example. An experiment in employing non-Mexican farmworkers showed that the poor in America couldn't do the work even if they try. Most of the farmworkers in the US are not unskilled workers, but people with agricultural knowledge and skills. It’s not just surviving hard physical work in the summer heat out in the fields, but also knowing how to plant, care for, and harvest crops. (The same thing applies to the slave labor we once used; knowing about rice or indigo growing was what the ‘owners’ looked for in slave labor).

Since we brought in the strange notions about blocking people from entering our various countries because we wanted to protect those already here from upheavals and cultural changes, the American system of choosing those it approves to enter is badly flawed. The process is long, complicated, annoying, expensive, and makes life difficult for all involved. I talked to the judge in Charlotte when I signed in and she told me that she couldn't do the part of her job that involves supervising the rest of the staff because there was such a huge backlog that she did nothing but interview people every day. Some of these interviews are a waste of time because the person has already shown ability; for example, I had to take a primitive ‘test’ of English skills (easily copied from the person beside me if I had not known the answers) even though I had been teaching in English for many years in the US. Also, she told me that there were supposed to be more people working in the Charlotte office, but these positions were not funded as budgets were cut. Since the budget cutting has continued since then, it must be worse now. Nobody is going to protest about cuts to the staff in immigration offices.

The forms to fill in are byzantine, and the oath, which one has to take, like some of the questions, are archaic or sometimes laughable. (“Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” “Do you intend to overthrow the government of the United States?”) Once we were without permission to live here because the process was supposed to take a few months, but it took years. So our permission to live and work here ran out. We were told that as long as we were ‘in the process’ it didn’t matter. But we had no documents to get back into the country should we need to leave for some reason. These frustrations mean that many people are going to drop out of the system through no fault of their own, and then become ‘illegal’. Before attaining US citizenship, one may be deported at any time with no hearing and no need for explanation. This happens much more often to Mexicans and other Spanish speakers than it does to English speaking ‘desirables’. During all this time, we could not vote and taking part in the political process or speaking out might mean deportation.

Americans regularly told me to break the law and get a job when I was still unable to do that, not having a green card. It was evident that they had no idea what the rules were about emigration and thought that everyone elsewhere in the world would come to the US if they could. And that once you were here, of course you could work and build a life for yourselves. But that was when the rules applied to us, their neighbor. The story changed when it applied to poor immigrants who do farm work.

Like many other departments of the US government, the civil servants that do the work of sorting through immigration papers and getting people through to green card status or citizenship are undervalued and understaffed. The system is badly flawed and in need of overhaul, but, until it is properly staffed, nothing will improve.

1 comment:

George Clifford said...

A reader sent this helpful note: Just to clarify: the origin of the word Canada is not French; it is from the Huron-Iroquois word "kanata" meaning village.