Illegal Immigration: Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?
Historically speaking, the United States is based on immigration. Since Columbus’ reports to European countries about the beautiful new land, it has become a place of paradise and refuge, a mythical realm of freedom with streets paved of gold. In the beginning English Pilgrims fled religious persecution. Later it was the Irish and other Europeans fleeing poverty and class distinctions for a better, richer life. During and after World War II it was the persecuted Jewish seeking safety and refuge from sure destruction. The gift of the Statue of Liberty from the French echoed the American affirmation, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” (Lazarus) Each influx of new habitants caused its own discord and opposition. The United States of America became known as “The Melting Pot.”
It is thought that immigration laws enacted since the late 1800s has affected the way we view immigration and how immigrants view themselves. It is common for immigrants to “seek out ethnic identity” (Shukla) thus retaining their cultural identity and isolating themselves from the rule. This tendency toward ethnic and cultural isolation is sometimes referred to as the “Salad Bowl.” (Arnold)
In 1845 an article describing the definition of becoming an American and how the country was affected by proliferate immigration appeared. This literal definition of “Melting Pot” describes the country’s feelings about immigrants at that time.
People say that the American character is unformed; and it is a fashion with some to say that there is no American character as yet. I do not think so; the national type seems to me quite as definite as most others. Like any other, the American character is of course undergoing constant change and development, for growth has no fixed limits in its processes, and we speak roughly when we speak of its stages. But our character seems to me to have gained its features. No nation of equal size was ever developed so rapidly. The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even, transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot. The resulting character seems to me a definite alloy; and its homogeneity is a guaranty that the nation is to remain one… (Coan)
Up to 1882, when the first immigration law was passed that imposed a fifty cent tax on all immigrants for registration and regulation fees, all people were admitted with almost no questions asked. From 1882 until 1892 immigration was handled via Castle Garden in Manhattan, NY. From 1882 until 1924 immigrants passed through Ellis Island for inspection and could be detained until admittance was accepted or denied. Those denied were then deported. Another law was passed in 1924 that further complicated the immigration process. In 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act, or INA, was passed. This act “collected and codified many existing provisions and reorganized the structure of immigration law. The Act has been amended many times over the years, but is still the basic body of immigration law. The INA is divided into titles, chapters, and sections.” (USCIS) Ellis Island was closed permanently as an immigration processing center in 1954 and was declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.
Since 1952 immigration laws have undergone several additions and changes. There are a number of ways for a foreigner to become an American or United States citizen today. Naturalization is a process that includes acquiring a Green Card, taking classes in U.S. History and Government and taking a test. There are multiple documents and fees. (USCIS) Most legal immigrants at this time are from middle-class origins in their home country.
Mexican authorities began abandoning their forts and missions in 1835. After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848, California became a U.S. territory until 1850 when it became a state. After the Gold Rush the number of white settlers boomed to over 300,000. With the expansion of the railroad to Los Angeles in 1876 travel to southern California became easier across the continent.
Los Angeles County was formed in 1850 when California became a state. The Hispanic population has always had a presence in Los Angeles’ history. Southern California’s population grew as a result of the growth of Hollywood in the 1920’s to the discovery of oil in 1892 and booming production that produced a quarter of the world’s oil by 1923. “The need for Mexican labor was so great in the United States that in 1918 the commissioner-general of immigration exempted Mexicans from meeting most immigration conditions, such as head taxes (small amounts paid to come into the country) and literacy requirements.” (Becker, 75) However by 1924, concerns about illegal entry led to the formation of the U. S. Border Patrol. Also, “as the Great Depression led many Americans to blame the nation's unemployment on the illegal aliens. Consequently, thousands of Mexicans—both legal immigrants and illegal aliens—were repatriated (sent back to Mexico). (Becker, 75)
During World War II because so many young men were drafted into the war the need arose again for extra workers, especially agricultural farm workers and the Bracero Program was instituted. “In 1964 the United States ended the twenty-two-year-old Bracero Program, an agreement with Mexico that allowed migrant workers to enter the United States to supply seasonal agricultural labor. However, ending the program did not stop migrants from crossing the border for work they had come to rely on. Those who could get visas often overstayed their time limits. Others simply crossed the border illegally and found jobs. A population of illegal immigrants began to develop.” (Becker, 10)
In 1954 the U.S. government established a hard-lined approach to protecting the borders. Calling it “Operation Wetback,” the U.S. Attorney General, Herbert Brownell announced “an intensive and innovative law enforcement campaign.” (Hernandez, 1) During that time more than a million illegal immigrants were deported back to Mexico along the southern states. This harsh approach to border protection is still embraced by some groups today. For whatever reason, Mexican immigration is considered harmful to the U.S. economy.
More than 50% of illegal immigrants are Hispanic. (Heer) Trying to establish the true numbers of illegal immigrants is difficult as many avoid census taking and other accounting practices Heer and Passel describe two ways to estimate the number of illegal immigrants using census data and birth records. These methods are moderately reliable although the article was written in 1987.
The first method, called the survey-based method, uses a combination of …census data and the results of a survey conducted in Los Angeles County. A sample was selected from babies born in Los Angeles Country who had a mother or father of Mexican origin. The survey included questions about the legal status of the baby’s parents and certain other relatives. ...The second method, called the residual method, is the method used… to estimate the number of undocumented aliens counted in the …census for the United States and each state, respectively. The method involves comparison of senses figures for aliens counted with estimate of legally-resident aliens developed principally with data from the immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). (Heer, 1)
Knowing the number or even an estimated number of illegal immigrants in the Los Angeles area is important in examining different kinds of solutions and revealing potential problems. Having at least an estimated of undocumented residents gives a starting place for estimating costs for emergency other services provided to all residents of Los Angeles County.
It is thought that illegal immigrants take sublevel jobs that are taking away jobs from average white men or women. The truth is that companies that pay less for workers have more to invest in other areas, which sometimes creates new jobs at higher wages for legal workers. They are also able to buy better or newer equipment so the work becomes more effective and thus creates more product and more profit. The result is more money to reinvest in the company for more legal employment. (Porter) Subsequently, if low cost employment cannot be found locally, businesses may be persuaded to take their business outside the U.S., such as Korea or Taiwan, thus losing even more jobs for qualified legal workers. (Portes)
There is an assumption that many illegal citizens are tapping into the welfare programs in order to live “free.” It is true “between the 1960s and 1990s it became apparent that the number of immigrants receiving public assistance was rising rapidly.” (Borjas) After the welfare reform act of 1996 it became more difficult for illegal immigrants to qualify for programs. Studies show that “the rate of welfare participation among immigrant households declined sharply.” (Borjas) Welfare reform notwithstanding the “the total cost of illegal immigration to Los Angeles County taxpayers alone exceeded $1 billion in 2008. Approximately $200 million is spent on public safety, $400 million for healthcare and $450 million to welfare and food stamps.” (NumbersUSA)
The numbers are extremely difficult to track, however as other reports show “estimates that illegal immigrants contribute between $379 million and $453 million a year in income, sales, property and other taxes.” (Chambley) This report concedes that it is difficult to calculate the actual amount illegal immigrants pay in taxes. Unfortunately this is still a very controversial and untraceable piece of the immigration question.
A 2004 study reveals that illegal immigrants “costs to Californians is $10.5 billion per year.” (Longley) In addition, Education funding is plummeting and many school districts, particularly Los Angeles Unified School District, do not have funds to provide free and fair education to all residents. Part of the problem is the specialization needed to help Hispanic students understand what is being taught either through bilingual education or translators. Illegal children attending school constitute 15% of the student body and cost Californians $7.7 billion. (Longley) This cost is excessive and causes a domino effect in all other areas of educational spending.
County hospitals are full of Hispanics that are illegally using state and federal funding for free healthcare. A study conducted by the USMBCC (United States/Mexico Border Counties Coalition) determined that “undocumented immigrants account for nearly 25% of uncompensated (hospital) costs incurred.” (Becker,77) This cost is estimated at $1.4 billion annually in healthcare costs to illegal immigrants and their families.(Longley)
The estimated cost for incarcerating illegal immigrant criminals exceeds $1.4 billion. (Longley) “In the population study of a sample of 55,322 illegal aliens, researchers found that they were arrested at least a total of 459,614 times, averaging about 8 arrests per illegal alien. Nearly all had more than 1 arrest. Thirty-eight percent (about 21,000) had between 2 and 5 arrests, 32 percent (about 18,000) had between 6 and 10 arrests, and 26 percent (about 15,000) had 11 or more arrests. Most of the arrests occurred after 1990.” (Kouri)
“Most Californians, who have seen their taxes increase while public services deteriorate, already know the impact that mass illegal immigration is having on their communities.” (Longley) The money budgeted for County run public services including police, sheriff, communications, disability services, housing, welfare, etc. is being drained by the costs of illegal immigration. This budget crisis is causing Los Angeles County to lay-off or furlough workers to meet their financial obligations.
Part of the problem we are having today was caused by immigration policies in the past, particularly those with Mexico. The on-again/off-again permission to pass back and forth across the border without repercussions created a sense of entitlement for workers and businesses dependent on those workers. In order to address the issue of illegal immigration through reform or enforcement of current statutes, three areas would have to be established. “First, they must accept that illegal immigration is indeed a ‘problem.’ Second, they must accept the government’s intentions of solving this problem in behalf of the best interests of the majority. Third, they must assume that government agencies are indeed capable of carrying out the proposed recommendations, even against resistance.” (Portes)
It is also important to note that the current immigration issues are different from historical immigration practices because “illegal movements from political or religious migrations or from ‘colonizing’ initiatives.” (Portes) Some kind of control is necessary in order to restrain the chaos that is already happening. Immigration regulations over the years have attempted a number of solutions to this continuing dilemma.
If the United States and Mexico borders were free to cross at any time, and citizenship offered to all those that already live in the state and surrounding states, taxes could be collected to make up the difference in insufficient funding for services offered and given. Also, if the United States is a single-language (English) speaking country than those that arrive need to have all services offered in the one language. If it is decided to adopt a second language then all citizens would need to be schooled in both languages. Other countries have successfully integrated multiple languages, such as Switzerland and Canada.
Unfortunately, companies would not benefit from the low wages they now get away with paying to illegal workers. They need to either enforce financial penalties to companies for hiring the illegal workers, as was done in Arizona recently, or allow financial perks for only hiring legal workers. This should encourage companies to benefit and have the monies available for reinvestment and job creation. As long as companies are continued to be allowed to hire illegal immigrants with no repercussions, they will continue to do so.
With more taxpaying citizens other economical issues would be eased. The costs for education would be funded as well as the healthcare industry. Welfare services need to be completely overhauled anyway, but making jobs available to legal citizens only would encourage people to work instead of taking the dole.
Known for many years as “The melting pot,” the United States is really more of a “Salad Bowl.” A melting pot implies blending and integrating of cultures. While this may be happening to some degree more assimilation may be necessary to breach the cultural and language gaps that exist.
It may not be the burden of the United States to free all peoples in all oppressed nations, but those who make a concerted effort should be rewarded. Giving incentives to those who desire true citizenship will only help to create a more unified state and country. We may not ever agree on religion, politics or cultural peculiarities, but those are the very foundation of this country. Our differences should be celebrated and our similarities rejoiced. Giving in to ignorance and stereotyping only creates more strife and struggle in any community whether it is the size of a small town or a nation.
May the words of Miss Liberty once again ring true. May we be the refuge for the poor, oppressed and the homeless. If we cannot be a true “Melting Pot” of diverse cultures and ethnicities we can be the “Salad Bowl” of variation.
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