The worst job I ever had was at a temp agency. I interviewed people and found them work. This agency was not a good place. They aspired to fill clerical positions. In the meantime, the dregs of society would pass by my desk. Drunks would stumble off the bus and into our waiting room, cursing us out for not finding them jobs. There were the child molesters, the itinerants, the addicts, and the lazy. And then there were the immigrants. If I send a Hispanic or Filipino immigrant to a job, they showed up everyday, on time, and worked the whole day. If I sent a run-of-the-mill-American, there was no guarantee they’d get there, that they wouldn’t be late, or take off at lunch never to be heard from again.
Time after time, the only workers I could depend on were the immigrants. They wanted to be here so badly they would take any job, at any time, and work their fingers to the bone (sometimes literally.) I remember one man who had been a banker in his native Peru. A banker. What did he do here? He worked loading and unloading cardboard boxes at an industrial plant. This country is so amazing that people would work the most difficult of manual labors to be here. We need those people. We need people who are so driven, with the extraordinary desire to make a better life for their children; they are possessed of the entrepreneurial spirit that will benefit all of us. We all have that in common; our ancestors took great risk to their fortunes and their literal selves to make it here.
When my mom came to this country, after the 1965 Immigration Act that did away with the racially based immigration quotas, she did not speak a word of English. She was sponsored by a family in Phoenix that she had met in Uruguay. She came to live with them and discovered that she was not being ‘sponsored’ as much as being kept as a type of indentured servant. Her story of exploitation is not uncommon. After a few months she escaped that situation and made it to Salt Lake. She spent a year working and learning English. My mom was highly educated before she came here, having attended University and law classes. She learned English by watching I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show (they spoke slowly enough to understand.) After that year she was accepted into BYU and continued with her education. She has earned advanced degrees and is now a Professor.
Don’t listen to the hype—this past generation of immigrants has learned English faster than the past 100 years of immigrants. This notion that people come here and don’t bother learning English presupposes a couple arguments: one that they are skilled enough in their primary language that the acquisition of English would be simple; two, people just don’t want to learn English. Both of those assumptions are incorrect. 90% of surveyed immigrants insist that English is “necessary and crucial” to succeeding in the U.S. The previous assumption is more difficult. Some immigrants are not even literate in their primary language, making the learning of English all that more difficult. Imagine trying to learn a second language when you didn’t know how to read and write English or were functioning on only a primary school education. You see the problem.
The other nonsense I hear is that people just don’t melt in like they used to. Again, this generation of immigrants has integrated into American life faster than any other. It used to be that it would take two, sometimes three, generations for people to learn English and start intermarrying. First generation Americans these days are regarded in the same way as people whose ancestors have been here longer. Did you know that the average African American’s ancestors have been in the U.S. longer than the average Caucasian’s? There are so many perceptions and polemics, that it's hard to see the bigger picture.
Fewer Americans major in the sciences and mathematics. Our scientific research and mathematical fields have been saved by granting student visas and green cards to foreigners. Since 9/11, student visas and green cards have decreased, both in the granting and in application. Our government agencies are more reluctant to disperse visas and green cards, even to industries and specialties (like bio-medical or electrical engineering) that are desperately in need of more bodies. As foreign students decide where to go to school, and they hear about the level of hostility to immigrants in this country, they don’t want to come here. This is disastrous. Yes, we invented the A and H bombs, but much of that work was done by immigrant refugees from Germany. If our native-born children wish to avoid the hard sciences, let’s make sure we’re opening the door and welcoming those immigrants that will help us fill the gap.
We need guest worker programs and better visas. We need more green cards granted. We need people who are willing to come to this country and work to make it a better place. We need immigrants.
So to any of you who have forgotten what it’s like each time we have a wave of immigration that people think is responsible for all that’s wrong with the country, let me remind you of something:
The Chicago Post: "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country."
Sound familiar? We hear the same nonsense bandied about with each wave of immigration. they bemoan a melting pot that never was. The reality is that the new people eventually integrate, they inter-marry, they join our faiths and our chambers of commerce. Don’t let the blowhards tell you differently: we all become Americans.
On this day, Independence Day, I am proud to be a child of immigrants. I am proud to support the rights of people who want to make a better life for themselves and their children—it can only better all of our lives.