Sunday, May 15, 2011

Immigration and poverty: Why Congress must reform our immigration laws now

Whenever I write about the need for immigration reform, someone inevitably posts the statement:

What part of “illegal” don’t you understand?

My response is another question:

What part of “poverty” don’t you understand?

It’s no accident first-world nations have serious immigration problems. Their own policies caused the problem in the first place. For centuries, European nations stole resources from their colonies, then left native populations in poverty with few resources to build a vital economy.

Historically, European nations milked considerable resources from poor countries around the world. Foreign occupiers in third-world countries forced natives to do the hardest jobs: felling trees in thick forests, farming, mining, reaping riches and shipping them to world markets. With few exceptions, profits went to European coffers.

European expatriates established privileged societies, relying on native servants for the smallest chores. They called exploited nations “colonies.” It’s no coincidence that most natives in these far-flung lands were dark-skinned.

Pale-skinned occupiers justified disreputable policies by claiming superiority based on superficial details:

● their light skin made them superior to people of color;
● Christianity was the “true religion,” the religion of “peace”;
● theirs was the “one true God”;
● European languages were easier to understand than those of native populations;
● European culture was “civilized”; native cultures were “savage.”

Occupiers controlled subject natives by:

● suppressing native languages, cultures, and religions;
● controlling native education;
● limiting native employment opportunities, pay, and benefits.

These policies doomed most native people to a life of poverty. Finally, with the dawn of the 20th century, the winds of independence--spawned on the American continent and blowing across Europe throughout the 1800s--began to infect the colonies. Native leaders marshaled their countrymen to wage decades-long struggles against colonialism.

Though most of these campaigns were eventually successful, as Mohandas Gandhi warned his fellow Indians, gaining freedom was just the first step. Overcoming poverty is a harder and longer battle. Moreover, they had to deal with anger against their departing white occupiers and traditional rivalries, such as the conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

With negative emotions clouding judgment, people at every social level had difficulty learning the high art of self-government, no easy trick to master. They had to establish an effective educational system to train down-trodden citizens for jobs they’d previously been barred from. They had to develop skills and raise capital to build businesses, small and large, to employ workers yearning to improve their economic status. And they had to build a political system that serves citizens at every social level while dealing with other countries in the international arena.

Success at self-government and building a new economy proved a more daunting task than exiling their old masters. Some countries have done better than others. India, for example, has developed thriving 21st century industries, from manufacturing electronic products to operating call centers for first-world corporations.

Though it’s one of the more successful of former European colonies, India’s economy is hampered by a huge population wallowing in abject poverty, and Hindu India has long been locked in a virtual struggle with neighboring Muslim Pakistan over the region of Kashmir. The traditionally Indian territory has a Muslim majority but a significant Hindu population.

Gaining independence doesn’t automatically confer peace or prosperity on any political entity, no matter how long they’ve enjoyed independence. That’s why inhabitants of former colonies often relocate to a country where they have a better chance of improving their economic condition. Many move to Europe, but more view America as a place of greater opportunities.

Unfortunately, U.S. immigration authorities often set higher immigration quotas for countries where citizens enjoy greater educational and economic advantages at home. That means people from poorer countries find it harder to obtain legal permission to immigrate here. Since most who “yearn to breathe free” have trouble entering the U.S. legally, many people manage to come in “under the radar.” They don’t do this to break the law but so they can feed their families.

The long-term solution would be for wealthy nations to take a proactive approach to ending poverty throughout the world, especially in countries that were historically plundered by greedy colonizers. In the short run, ending the expensive war on illegal immigration would save billions in enforcement costs, and putting everyone to work would enhance market capital and raise tax revenues.

These steps would go a long way toward ending the current economic crisis. That’s why passing humane immigration laws would be a win-win step for all concerned.

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