The immigration issue demonstrates the power of democracy to effect change. Election results in 2012 have emboldened those seeking to reform immigration laws and have had the tonic effect of stripping the cloak of invincibility from opponents. The poverty of the opponents’ arguments is now on full display.
The conservative Heritage Foundation unveiled a study this week purporting to show that immigration reform, as proposed in Congress, would saddle the U.S. economy with more than $6 trillion in expenditures over the next 50 years. The crude economic calculus measured the revenues produced by immigrants against the benefits they are likely to receive from the government.
The analysis of opponents does not take into account generations of history: poor immigrants arriving, lacking in education but rich in ambition and determination. Their families quickly learn to climb the social and economic ladder, infusing the nation with new energy, new industry and fresh creativity. The Heritage study looks only at the profit and loss columns, concluding immigrants who lack a high school education will be a drain on the nation’s wealth.
What the study reveals is a bias against poor people. Inevitably, the poor constitute an important segment of any immigrant population. Peasants from Poland, laborers from Italy, impoverished farmers from Ireland who came here by the millions did not arrive as computer programmers. They came seeking a chance. They came poor, and they built this country.
Because the study is biased against the poor, it is also biased against Hispanics, because a large proportion of immigrants from Mexico and Central America arrive poor and with a deficit in education. Because they lack documentation, they are easily exploited by employers, who are able to pay low wages amid the poor working conditions of farm fields, construction sites, slaughterhouses and other venues where rough, less than appealing work is done.
Vermont has recognized that it is better to treat immigrants fairly. Somewhere around 1,500 undocumented immigrants are said to be working on Vermont’s dairy farms, forced into lives of isolation because they lack the rights of citizenship. The state of Vermont cannot alter federal immigration law, but state leaders have taken steps to help smooth the rough edges of life for undocumented workers. Gov. Peter Shumlin has established a “bias-free” policing policy in the belief that it is not the job of Vermont police to enforce federal immigration law; nor should they engage in racial profiling.
Further, the Legislature this week was pushing through a bill that would create a driving card for undocumented workers, allowing them to drive legally. A few farm workers can be seen in local stores buying groceries, but many are afraid to venture out, knowing they might run afoul of authorities and end up in the hands of immigration officials.
Averting that outcome is good for individual farm workers. It is good also for Vermont farmers who have found that a shortage of local farm help has made the supply of willing, hard-working immigrants a necessary solution.
The Heritage Foundation’s reading of the situation in Vermont is that once the state’s farm workers gain legal status, they will immediately become a drain on state and federal resources, taking welfare checks, health care benefits and other government services. Some no doubt would avail themselves of needed benefits — like many poor Vermonters do. But others will be working hard to get ahead, and their children will be growing up as Americans, ready to take part in the life of their country.
Studies indicate that immigrants are generally hard-working, tradition-minded people who believe in the value of family and who are imbued with the idea that America is a place where they can get ahead. In that sense, generations of immigrants have been a challenge to those already here, who need to be on their toes to keep their jobs in a competitive world. That’s a good thing, for those already here and for immigrants looking for a chance.
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