Along with apple pie, the Super Bowl and Thanksgiving itself, immigration is in many ways a quintessentially American institution, one justifiably celebrated on our great national feast day each November.
It is cliché to say we are a “nation of immigrants,” but who else can make such a claim?
We are the world’s oldest democracy with the heart of a start-up country, constantly driving and striving with the newcomer’s conceit that anything is possible in a land this vast and rich. We take pride in our dashing, effervescent history but we are forever focused on the future.
We are a nation of ideals and ideas, defined more by what we believe and the freedom we embrace than from whence our ancestors may have hailed.
Partisans may not agree on much but there is a treasured American consensus that hearty and ambitious immigrants imbue our country with a dynamism and economic energy that set us apart.
To wit, there are roughly 80,000 immigrants in Delaware and they comprised nearly 11% of the state’s workforce in 2011. Census data shows that Delaware’s 1,533 Latino-owned businesses had sales of $334 million and employed 2,129 people. The state’s 2,989 Asian-owned businesses had sales of $1.3 billion and employed 5,523 people.
To be American carries no prerequisite of genetic disposition. It may be possible to gain citizenship in the Republics of France or Germany but one can never really choose to become French or German.
All this makes us unique, and the world’s most popular and welcoming destination for those seeking a new beginning.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, “nearly 41 million immigrants lived in the United States in 2012 — a historical numeric high… About 20 percent of all international migrants reside in the United States, which accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population.”
None of this is to say that riding the immigration wave is free of complexity or challenge.
In Europe, the cost and cultural impact of legal immigration have riven deep political fissures, particularly in the United Kingdom. From time to time here in the US we’ve seen some of that, with both legitimate and jingoistic concerns raised about the kind of changes unchecked immigration might bring.
But it is the matter of illegal immigration (or unauthorized or undocumented or whatever the current approved term may be) that has been put squarely on the Thanksgiving dinner table by President Obama’s action to offer a path to citizenship for about half of the 11 million people who came to our country without passing through the official front door. An estimated 25,000 fitting that description are here in Delaware.
According to the White House, the President’s plan “requires anyone who’s undocumented to get right with the law by paying their taxes and a penalty, learning English, and undergoing background checks before they can be eligible to earn citizenship. It requires every business and every worker to play by the same set of rules.”
There are few appealing options for addressing the conundrum of the millions of people who are here without our country’s imprimatur and many feel this vision is not all bad. However, the President says he is taking unilateral action because Congress has failed to take action. For an issue this important, that decision is a mistake.
For all our power and resources, our country has limitations. We make choices based on priorities. A governmental bureaucracy that is ‘by the people’ will do what it can afford and what political imperatives command.
And for the last generation, there has been insufficiently-sustained political will to keep millions of people from slipping across our southern border[i]. That may not be right but it is a reality. It is also a fact that our government is not going to track down and deport these millions en masse.
As a nation of laws, as a country that cherishes fair play, it does not feel very good that we might give special attention to a group of people who did not follow the rules, particularly when so many others have.
But you can ignore a problem and let it fester or you can act. The seeds of bi-partisan readiness to address this particular problem – to strengthen the security of our border and design a stringent process for bringing good people into the American family and onto the IRS books – are apparent. The President should work with the new Congress to make it happen.
[i] The flow of illegal immigrants from the south is changing: 1. More of the border crossers are from Central America, fewer from Mexico. 2. Texas is overtaking California and Arizona as the main point of entry (and Gov. Rick Perry has stepped up enforcement efforts) and 3. Overall numbers of illegal crossings are actually down.
Michael Fleming is the descendent of immigrants that include Irish millworkers, French Huguenots and Norwegians who liked the Scandinavian winters so much they thought Minnesota would offer a pleasant climate. His 10th great-grandfather Edward Doty was a passenger on the Mayflower, signer of the Mayflower Compact and is thought to be the first immigrant to be reprimanded for raucous behavior.