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24/7 web cam of United States/Mexico border conducted by the Border Fence Project.
News and Opinion

Strangers In The Land
Thinking about immigration in the Twenty-First Centry.

-- Miryam Hazán

Immigration is one of the most misunderstood subjects of our time. Although the United States is a country of immigrants, in the last few years, immigration has been portrayed as a pathological condition, as a disease that should be stopped drastically because if it is not it will spread all over the body destroying it. A widespread idea not only held among Republican presidential pre-candidates but also constantly presented by the media is that if the borders are not dramatically shut down by building taller and more technologically sophisticated walls, all the impoverished inhabitants of the third world will come and not only take the jobs of many Americans but also inexorably transform this country in such a way that the democratic and ethical values that have sustained its economic and social development will be lost and substituted by the irrational and corrupted ones of other parts of the globe.

The reality of international migration today, however, is much more complicated and does not point towards this possibility. The first thing to know is that not every poor person in the Third World wants to migrate to the United States or to Western Europe. As Demetrius Papademetriou, the head of the Migration Policy Institute has explained, in a historical context in which international migration is at its highest, only a little less than 3 percent of the world population actually lives outside of its country of residence. In other words, few people migrate to another country. If one digs deeper into the data, it becomes even more evident that fewer people than what it is generally thought of want to migrate. Probably around 0.5 and 1 percent of all international immigrants are people displaced for political reasons including ethno-racial and religious discrimination and wars or for natural or man-made disasters. This means that they do not leave their country of residence willingly but because they are forced to do so. Only from 1 to 2.5 percent of the world population migrate willingly, generally for economic or family reasons: looking for better economic opportunities than the ones available in their places of origin, or joining family members in the host country. A large number of those migrants, however, do not go to the United States or Western Europe as is generally believed but migrate to middle eastern countries or to other places within the Asian continent.

Despite this fact, it is true that the Western world is receiving large numbers of immigrants today. In the United States, these numbers are comparable to the levels that this country received at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth even though the number of foreign born as a percentage of the population is still lower than between 1860 and 1920 when a large number of European immigrants arrived to American shores. According to 2006US Census data, the United States has 37.5 million immigrants, which represent around 20 percent of the total immigrant population of the world. This number places the US as the main world destination for international immigrants. Within the United States immigrants represent 12.5 percent of the total population a high percentage but not as large as in the early twentieth century when that number reached over 14 percent, and certainly similar and even lower than in other Western countries and the Middle East.

The arrival of so many newcomers, however, has unavoidably created many legitimate questions about the viability of their assimilation to the mainstream American society and about the impact they will have in the notions of what it is to be an American. This is especially so because a large proportion of these immigrants come from Mexico (30.7 percent of all foreign-born) or from other parts of the globe outside of Europe and they are thus perceived to be more racially and culturally different than previous generations of immigrants.

In a recently published book, Who are we?, the controversial scholar Samuel Huntington has argued that new immigrants and especially Mexicans represent a great challenge to America’s national unity because they will be unable to assimilate to "the American creed" that has guided the development of its political identity since its foundation. This creed, according to him, emerged from the Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers but was enriched by the views of German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants who shared with the first settlers a Christian heritage. Its key elements are the "English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, including the responsibility of rulers and the rights of individuals; the dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth." Southern and Eastern European immigrants who arrived later than their Western counterparts did not challenge this creed but embraced it as a promise for economic opportunity and political liberty. They thus assimilated in large numbers after World War II, virtually eliminating the idea of ethnicity as a component of national identity in the United States.

What is not clearly clarified by Huntington is that previous generations of immigrants including Jews were not perceived at the time of their arrival as capable of adapting to that creed either. It took generations for Jews and even for Catholics to be accepted into that creed. As it has been well documented Jews focused on assimilating in the United States by acquiring better education and by improving their economic status and they still confronted many obstacles to their integration. They had to get involved into the political process in order to finally become part of the American mainstream.

New immigrants, including Mexicans are in this respect no different than previous generations of immigrants. They work as hard as previous generation of newcomers. The fact that many of them left their country of origin looking for better economic opportunities shows that they are entrepreneurs that bring with them a strong working ethic. As with previous generations of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, the first generation may not speak English well, but there is not data that proves that the second and third generation will not do so. For instance, a major problem that scholars are finding is that the second and third generation of immigrants, as with previous cohorts of newcomers are losing their mother thong.

New immigrants and particularly Mexicans, however, do confront an obstacle that places them into a different situation than that of previous generations of immigrants: the large numbers of persons within that group that are illegally in the United States. The condition of illegality of a large number of new immigrants can be considered the single most important obstacle for their integration into the American society. Without a legal status these immigrants and their offspring will certainly have a hard time to assimilate into the American creed. How could they if they are not welcomed? And the responsibility of this phenomenon –the condition of illegality-- cannot be attached only to this group itself, but has to be situated within the historical context of Mexican migration to the United States.

As scholars such as Aristide Zolberg have persuasively argued, when barriers to formal immigration were enforced after the First World War to limit European immigration, and when virtually all Asian immigrants were banned, Mexican workers were recruited to work in states bordering Mexico, particularly in Texas and California, while conservative Congressmen, otherwise opposed to the influx of newcomers, encouraged their arrival because Mexicans were not perceived as immigrants but as sojourners. Their historical recruitment as laborers either illegally but with the toleration and even complicity of American immigration authorities, or through guest worker programs such as the bracero accords inevitably created immigration networks from Mexico that have not been recognized by American immigration policies and laws. Until the United States recognizes that Mexican immigration to the United States is a normal phenomenon between two bordering states, Mexican immigrants that represent the largest immigrant group to this country, will have a hard time incorporating into the American society.

We as Jews recognize this situation well. The Torah has told us that we should be kind to the stranger who lives among us because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We also were once strangers in this land and for that very reason we should be generous to those that come to this country looking for better opportunities and extend a welcoming hand.

Miryam Hazán is a visiting research fellow at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.

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