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Friday, February 15, 2013

A fair chance for all newcomers

A new “Federal Hill”?

By Will Collette

One of the rarely discussed aspects of today’s immigration debate is what it currently takes to enter the United States legally. Under our current system, what does it take to get a “green card"? Or to become a US citizen?

Instead, the focus is on “those goddammed illegals” who take our jobs and threaten our national security. Implicit in the term “illegals” is that the problem isn’t that they come from another country, but that they broke the law to get here.

But here’s the rub: for more than a generation, we have made it virtually impossible for a foreign national to legally enter the US and become a permanent resident who may someday seek to become a citizen. Instead, we issue temporary visas to some – visitors’ visas, student visas and a limited number of work visas - and the rules for even those temporary visas are ever changing and tightening.

Generations ago, the forebears of most European Americans came through various portals. Everyone's heard of Ellis Island. There were many other entry points all along the US coastal, including Fox Point in Providence. Many came across the border from Quebec and Mexico. Unless there was something obviously and dramatically wrong with you, you were granted entry to the land of opportunity.

There were some quotas, but they were applied mostly to non-white immigrants, especially Asians and Africans.

But after World War II, America’s open-door policy, at least toward Europeans, began to change and it came within days of changing the course of my own life. My father was part of the American occupation forces in Germany after the War. He was stationed in Berlin where he met and married my mother.

My mother shortly after her
arrival in the US (circa 1950)
In 1949, while she was carrying me and travelling to US to live with my now-discharged father, the immigration meter just about ran out. If she had traveled just a few days later, she would have been denied entry and diverted to Canada where I would have been born, instead of at Notre Dame Hospital (long gone) in Central Falls.

My mother learned English, went to the history and citizenship classes, passed the test and became an American citizen as soon as she could. As I recall, I was in the first or second grade when she proudly took the oath of allegiance.

Today, there is a complex visa system that can cause a delay of from 10 to more than 20 years before a person can be granted legal entry, never mind any kind of path to citizenship. Under today’s system, my mother probably would not have gotten a visa and certainly would not have become a citizen.

And neither would virtually all of your ancestors.

We have strayed quite far from America’s historical roots and traditions. The US Supreme Court issued its first decision on the right to citizenship in 1805, addressing the thorny question of what to do with the tens of thousands of British Loyalists – Americans who sided with, and often fought for, King George III. Many Loyalists left when the colonies prevailed in the Revolutionary War. But most stayed – they comprised roughly 20% of the country’s population - and petitioned for citizenship in the new republic.

The Supreme Court ruled then and in subsequent decisions that the path to citizenship required some reasonable period of residence in the United States and good moral character.

Immigration policy today
For most of America’s history, five years was the necessary length of residence before you can petition for citizenship. Occasionally, that time limit has been raised during periods of xenophobia. 

But generally, it was five years, which was what many of the Founders of this country felt was the appropriate amount of time for a newcomer to learn our ways, commit to our values and shed the “prejudices” of their native land.

One of the most persuasive voices for a five-year waiting period was Thomas Jefferson.

Through the 1800s and all the way through World War II, America took in millions with hardly more than a quick physical exam and some cursory questions. Now, this doesn’t describe the experience of Charlestown’s First Families, or for that matter the second families who came here as indentured servants to tend the first families’ plantations. However it does apply to the rest of us, especially those whose names end in a vowel.

Our ancestors came by ship, cart, turnip truck and on foot (or later by plane, as my mother did) to live and work in a place they felt was better than the land they left. And look at what we became.

Who can say the United States is not a better place for all the generations of immigrants who came to this country, bringing with them their labor, their brains and their cultures, to enrich our own.

Each new wave of immigrants was given a mixed greeting – thanks for coming so we can put you to work for cheap and, really, could you please tone down the accent, the food smells and stay in your place.

And each wave, upon its own integration into American culture, got to dish out that mixed message to the next wave.

For too long now, we have turned the time-honored tradition of entry and integration into a caricature. 

These days, we only want a small number of people to come in to work.

We strictly limit the number of H1B, H2B and J visas we issue to people in very specific occupations under very strict guidelines and limited time periods. 

We let others in on student visas, but when you get your degree, adios, amigo unless you persuade a US citizen to marry you.

And we wonder why so many people enter the country without these visas which are so difficult and expensive to get. Or why so many who come in with one of these limited-duration visas decide to fade into the scenery rather than leave the US on schedule.

We have deviated from America’s founding principles. Jefferson argued that failing to offer a reasonable path to citizenship would create a class of semi-citizens who would have no voice, a condition similar to that which drove the American colonies to rebel against England.

The Founders also considered – and rejected – another issue in today’s immigration debate, the imposition of large application fees, as well as fines and penalties. They felt that time-in-residence was the most important factor and that citizenship should not be for sale or restricted to the wealthy[1].

For all those who think that open-door immigration is well and good in theory, but do we really want to let all “those people” come in and compete for our jobs, I say – remember. In every time in our history and for just about every single immigrant population group, the same arguments have been made in favor of excluding them.

Some argue that granting a reasonable path to citizenship to the millions who have not followed our impossibly-difficult immigration procedures makes a mockery of our laws[2]. Again I say, remember. One of America’s first great decisions was to allow those who fought for the British Crown during the Revolution to take their place as full citizens. Yes, we gave amnesty and citizenship to people who, by any reasonable definition, committed treason against this nation.

Immigration has shaped just about every aspect of American life and culture, and I would argue that it still does, and still should. When I visit my sister in my hometown of Central Falls, I marvel at how much the city has changed from being a French Canadian enclave with a strong mix of Poles and Irish to being a lively and vibrant Latino community. There’s a family bodega on almost every block. In my day, CF’s claim to fame was having the highest number of barrooms per capita in America.

In today’s Central Falls, this new culture has resulted in some amazing, largely undiscovered restaurants. Forget the stereotype of Mexican food – each Latin American nation has its own specialties and you can enjoy that diversity in Central Falls. If you're unsure about Latin American cuisine and want a sure bet, try La Casona

I hope Central Falls figures out a way to use its rich and diverse culture to celebrate its history and its people. Rhode Island could use another dining (and shopping) destination like Federal Hill, and I think CF is a prime candidate for that.

That’s how my sister sees it, and is working with fellow citizens on an advisory commission on arts, culture and tourism for newly elected Mayor James Diossa to set such plans in motion.

History shows us that immigration is not a threat – it’s an opportunity. It has made America what it is, and what it will be.


[1] America’s history also includes a number of special and horrific facts – the importation of African slaves, indentured servants, Chinese coolies in the 1800s to work in the mines and railroads of the West. Our restriction of citizen rights for women and the landless. Our genocidal actions against the continent’s first immigrants, the Native Americans.

[2] As if we have a history of strictly and uniformly enforcing all of our laws.