“I am disgusted by a system in which people are snuck across the border in the bottom of an 18-wheeler,” the man said, offering an immigration plan consisting of stronger border security, but perhaps more importantly, a quick path to legal citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants, as well as an expansive guest worker program, all part of “a humane way to deal with people who are making a contribution to our economy.” One might be surprised that these words – and proposed solutions – came not from Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy, but from the president himself. A Senate Committee recently passed a bill along those lines sponsored by Senator Kennedy, with full Democrat support and some measure of Republican support. With all but one of the Senate Democrats vocally in favor of the bill and enough Senate Republicans declaring their support, the bill appears to have more than enough votes to pass the Senate, but it is unlikely that President Bush will feel at ease signing a bill built upon limited Republican support, even if it squares with his desires. Thus, the president finds himself in a bit of a deadlock with Congress; the House passed a bill last December that delivers on border security but fails to provide any guest worker program. However, with the president ready to compromise and Congressional Democrats excited over the prospect of a bill passing largely in their favor, a Congress-president compromise bill seems possible in the near future. And so we should ask ourselves whether this bill would be beneficial to the illegal immigration population and our country as a whole.
It seems clear enough that the kind of bill the president and the Senate Democrats propose will be directly and immediately beneficial to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing within our country. While most of these people work rather unsavory jobs that are often no different than those they would find in their homelands, the salaries are much greater. That is not to say that they are necessarily doing well. They are being exploited by American businesses that are knowingly breaking the law, and they often are moving into rough poverty within our own country. However, it is a measured step towards prosperity, which is why so many of them risk death to reach our lands, and by offering those who have a clean record citizenship, we are rewarding their hard work with the opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty. While this generation may work jobs Americans would never dream of, our offering of citizenship may ensure that their children gain an education and a prospect for a step out of poverty.
Many conservatives have branded such legislation as an Amnesty, suggesting that the single most important issue here is that these immigrants have come here illegally. It is not. Most of these illegal immigrants do not come from an opportune past and they do not possess the skills necessary to come here legally. In fact, it is precisely because they come from such destitution that they are willing to risk their lives to escape it. The income gap between Mexico and the United States is the largest between any two border states in the world, and most of the neighboring Central American states are far poorer than Mexico. Illegal immigration is inescapable in our current situation; to suggest that such people are criminal is to pass a harsh judgment that is inconsistent with our own values.
American law allows for those designated political refugees to cross our borders legally, and yet makes no such provision for those fleeing the terrible burden of poverty. Do we honestly mean to suggest that life in Castro’s Cuba merits our open arms but life in Nicaragua, replete with a poverty and underemployment rate of around 50 percent does not?
The CIA world factbook offered the following brief explanation of Nicaragua’s woes: “GDP annual growth has been far too low to meet the country’s needs, forcing the country to rely on international economic assistance to meet fiscal and debt financing obligations. Distribution of income is one of the most unequal on the globe.” A similar explanation could be offered for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and Mexico, where a majority of the immigrants come from, is not doing much better.
The education, the medical care, the work, the living conditions, the crime, the drugs and the inability to escape it bear a disturbing similarity to the worst of poverty that resides within our own cities and ghettos. Can we rightly condemn these people for seeking any means to escape it? Can we condemn these people for crossing what are, in all honestly, purely human borders, borders barring immense wealth from a certain race of people? While one may object that we are unable to assimilate all of Central America into our economic system (and where does it stop, they might ask, should we not take in all of Africa too?), this is simply not an issue. As long as a relatively small percentage of people seek to enter our lands from the third world, it should not aversely affect our economy or culture.
Nevertheless, there are certain questions we must ask. Will these immigrants, even after they have been granted citizenship, encounter opportunities to escape their American poverty? New Latino ghettos, creating the same terrible cycle of violent crime and drugs as our cities, would not be considered a favorable solution by anyone. Thus, it is without a doubt that if we really wish to assimilate these people, we must offer them not just citizenship, but care.
They must – through targeted social policies – gain access to a quality education, good medical care, and social mobility, all far from guaranteed in modern America. And of course the only real solution to illegal immigration is economic development within these countries, which begins with the elimination of all international debts held by these nations. Secondly, we can stop pressuring them to follow the IMF/WTO model of development, and instead point to Costa Rica, the only first world country in Central America, which has consistently pursued a market economy heavily regulated by strong social welfare programs as the best path to development and prosperity, not for some, but for all.
Jason Vick is a student at Virginia Tech.