Immigrants Stage a Patriotic Protest

This week, I attended part of the immigration demonstrations in Washington, D.C. Having lived in D.C. for more than five years now, I’ve seen quite a few protests.

Most of them tend to become caricatures of themselves: Flag burning, drum lines, paper mache weirdness, armpit hair – I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures. There’s something aggravating – and a little amusing – about seeing a middle class white kid burn an American flag, denounce capitalism, duck into a Starbucks to use the bathroom, then dash off in his SUV.

But this week, I saw families. I saw couples, extended families, and kids in strollers, or riding on their fathers’ shoulders. There were no topless women, giant puppets, or "Bush = Hitler" posters. Instead I saw signs indicating the pride Hispanic immigrants take in doing much of the grunt work in the United States.

These were dishwashers, fruit and vegetable pickers, day laborers, and cleaning crews. And they weren’t ashamed. They were proud to be here. It was refreshing to for once see the National Mall filled with people there not to condemn America, but eager to become a part of it.

As you might guess, I’m pro immigration. I think people who need work should be able to meet up with people who need laborers, regardless of what artificial lines governments have drawn in the sand. It also strikes me odd that the most virulent of anti-immigration activists often call themselves conservatives. When it comes to family, work ethic, pride in heritage, and religious faith, it’s hard to find a more conservative ethnic group than Hispanics. Yet somehow, for many on the right, they’ve become the enemy.

Immigration opponents are fond of pointing out that illegal immigration is, by definition, illegal. Therefore, the argument goes, illegal immigrants are criminals. They come to this country already having assaulted our rule of law. We should be arresting them, critics say, not allowing them the opportunity to protest.

I guess my first response to that is that not all laws are moral. At one time, in some parts of this country, it was illegal for blacks and whites to eat at the same lunch counter. I don’t think many people today would argue that those who intentionally violated those laws should have been dismissed outright, by simple virtue of the fact that they broke the law (though many at the time argued precisely that). In terms of real harm done, I’d rank the crime of crossing a border seeking back-breaking work for paltry pay, with the aim of making good for one’s family, somewhere near yanking that "do not remove" tag from your mattress.

My colleague at the Cato Institute Dan Griswold also points out that the main reason we have illegal immigrants is because there’s no legal way for low-skilled, low-wage workes to legally enter the country, even temporarily. Griswold notes that when such temporary work visas have historically been available, illegal immigration hasn’t been a problem.

Opponents of immigration often bristle when you call them "anti-immigrant." They’ll insist that they’re "anti-illegal immigrant." A good way to test them is to ask if they’d support such a temporary work visa program for a large number of unskilled laborers. My guess is that most would say "no."

Immigration opponents frequently claim that Mexican immigrants are crime prone, more likely to be on public assistance, and a drain on the healthcare and education systems. Some of that may be true. Immigrants are, after all, disproportionately poor, or they wouldn’t be trying to come here in the first place. Groups that skew poorer are also on average more likely to commit crime, be recipients of social welfare programs, and, since they can’t legitimately get health insurance from an employer, probably more likely to seek emergency room care.

But I also suspect that much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is exaggerated, or conjecture. One El Paso resident emailed me earlier this week, for example, and complained that his city has suffered a wave of crime and a drop in real estate values over the last several years, largely due to illegal immigrants. I found those claims suspicious, so I looked them up. In fact, El Paso’s crime rate is on the decline, and its real estate market is booming.

Immigration critics’ most common argument, and perhaps the argument that animates most of them, concerns culture. Critics fear that Hispanic immigrants aren’t assimilating properly, and that, consequently, they’re corrupting American culture. These critics chafe at bilingual education, for example, or for the Spanish option on ATMs and phone menus.

But this is an argument that’s been made of every wave of immigration, from the Irish and Italians to the Germans and Poles to the Eastern Europeans to the Chinese. Today, we find city enclaves like "Little Italy," "Chinatown," and "Little Germany" charming. But when immigrants were first pouring in from those areas of the world, ethnic neighborhoods were seen as a sign of the new immigrants’ reluctance to assimilate, just as Hispanic neighborhoods are sometimes seen today.

In truth, Hispanics are Americanizing about as well as the ethnic immigrant groups before them. A recent Pew poll found that about half of second-generation Hispanics primarily speak conversational English. By the next generation, it’s up to 80 percent. The same poll found that while half of Hispanic immigrants lack a college education, by the third generation, three-fourths had a high school degree. The percentage of college attendees more than doubled in two generations.

A 2001 survey by the Small Business Administration found that Hispanic-owned small businesses have grown at a faster rate than those owned by blacks or Asians. Aiding this transition is an under 30-generation less likely to see race or ethnicity as a barrier to friendship, commerce, or romance than any previous generation.

It’s certainly true that Hispanics are making an indelible imprint on American culture. But so did every previous wave of immigrants, and overwhelmingly for the better. We are of course a nation of immigrants. But it hasn’t been easy getting here. Each wave of immigration has encountered the same hostility, and nearly the same arguments.

Yes, we need to protect our borders from terrorists. But the best way to do that is to provide the millions of people who want to come to the U.S. and work hard to provide for their families, especially low-skilled workers, a legal, streamlined way to do so.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in "nanny state" and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity, and civil liberties. Separately, he maintains the The Agitator weblog. The opinions expressed in his column for are his own and are not to be associated with Cato unless otherwise indicated.

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