Time to Speak — A new look at immigration

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Those are the words on the Statue of Liberty.

The United States Declaration of Independence proclaims that all people “are created equal.”

Though these are welcoming words, some immigration laws and attitudes are so contrary to basic principles that our very democracy is at risk. Our country is in danger of losing its identity as a welcoming nation.

In many churches the world over, we fervently sing “All are welcome, all are welcome in this place.” Yet how many times do our words fail to match our actions when we go about our daily living.

Many of us have heard of the devastating effects of bullying, teasing and taunting on the playground. Likewise we have heard mean-spirited comments about immigrants who want desperately to become part of us. Our society cannot afford to focus on exclusion and condemnation when the whole message of welcome which we want to embody is distorted. A few facts about immigrants can be helpful to us all.

Today’s immigrants come from all over the world. Many come because they experience prejudice and mistrust in their home countries. Drug cartels are dangerous and threaten the lives of others.

Drug trafficking across the borders is abetted by U.S. demand for drugs. And despite our nation’s employment rates, the demand for foreign workers continues.

Some people are attracted to our country by the high ideals expressed in our national documents. American factories overseas often fail to pay workers a living wage. NATO treaties harm poor farmers when richer people buy their land and fail to compensate them adequately. Droughts and other climate changes also drive people from their homelands.

False notions such as “immigrants do not pay taxes” are dispelled by the Cato Institute and others. The Social Security “suspense file,” (tax money not able to be matched to a worker) grew at least $420 million from 1990 to 1998.

It is a myth that immigrants come to take advantage of welfare. Actual findings indicate that immigrants come here for jobs and employers are looking for workers.

Another myth is that immigrants send all their money back to their homelands. Immigrants assist the U.S. economy by buying personal living necessities, and they also put about $162 billion into local, state and federal governments (according to a Cato Institute study).

It is also inaccurate to say that immigrants take jobs needed by Americans. The Brookings Institute reports that immigrant business owners create jobs for Americans as well as for immigrants. They fill gaps between high and low skilled workers and give an annual tax benefit to the nation of about $10 billion, according to National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Labor studies.

The myth that “immigrants do not want to become American citizens or learn English” is discounted by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which states that 75 percent of immigrants speak English well within 10 years of their arrival. Demand for adult English classes surpasses the supply all over the country.

Some Americans believe that U.S. efforts at border control have led to higher rates of illegal immigrants. The reason for the influx, according to the Cato Institute, is often the lack of a legal entry process.

The idea that the war on terror can be won by restricting immigration is nixed by the fact that the 911 terrorists were here legally. Tougher restrictions demonizing immigrants may even cause immigrants to fear giving helpful information to law enforcement.

In spite of such misunderstandings, and the inertia in our Congress to study and make efforts at compassionate and humane immigration laws, there is still hope. Creating an efficient path to citizenship and a process of speedy naturalization for the undocumented would help both Americans and immigrants. All workers would have equal opportunity, a living wage and protection under the law. If Americans would study the situation and view it through the lens of the Golden Rule, intelligent input would lessen tensions and lead to a quicker and more humane solution.

Sister Theresina Greenwell is a Dominican Sister of Peace.

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