October 15, 2006
By Peter Skerry
THE LAST several months have seen the most intense
debate over immigration that Americans have had in
decades. Members of Congress have divided sharply over
whether to ratchet up enforcement along our borders,
grant legal status to undocumented workers, or both.
In Massachusetts, the governor's race could turn in
part on whether voters think illegal immigrants should
be allowed to get driver's licenses and pay in-state
tuition at public universities.
In these controversies, all sides appeal to history.
Some look back fondly to an age when America welcomed
all comers. Others emphasize how in the past
immigrants came here legally and worked hard to
assimilate. Still others point out that our history
includes more than four decades when immigration was
shut off entirely.
The basic premises of the immigration debate rely on
such rhetoric and on symbols from our history as the
quintessential nation of immigrants. But we should
stop and reflect on how these images may cloud our
understanding of immigration.
No symbol looms larger than the Statue of Liberty. Yet
at first, Liberty had nothing to do with immigration.
On the contrary, she was intended as a beacon of hope
to those struggling for liberty in their own lands.
With her back to New York, she strides oceanward,
sending her light out into the world.
Yet even before the statue was unveiled, Liberty's
transformation had begun. In 1883, an art auction was
held to raise funds to complete her pedestal. Among
the items sold was a sonnet, ``The New Colossus,"
whose author, Emma Lazarus, was moved by the arrival
in New York of Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. Thus
began the reinterpretation of the statue into a symbol
of welcome to immigrants and, in particular, a refuge
to those fleeing persecution.
But contrary to Lazarus's stirring language about
``huddled masses yearning to breathe free," most
immigrants came not for political freedom but for
economic advancement. Historians also note that
immigrants were typically not the most downtrodden,
but rather those with means to pay for trans-Atlantic
Similarly faulty is the assumption that past
immigrants arrived here planning to stay for good. In
fact, many -- perhaps most -- originally intended to
stay awhile, work hard and save money, and then return
home. In the years before World War I, about one-third
of those arriving from Europe did just that.
These patterns are also evident today. Sociologist
Douglas Massey has documented, for example, that
Mexican migrants tend to be those with a modicum of
education and resources, and typically come planning
to maximize income, minimize expenditures, and then
return home with enough money to start a business or
build a house. What happens, of course, is that people
put down roots and end up staying. But the original
intention to return home has enduring effects. One is
the emptying of public schools for weeks in the
Southwest, when Mexican families head home for long
holidays. Another is the low priority that immigrants
who don't intend to stay here give to learning
Instead of facing up to such complications, we
Americans romanticize immigration as a single dramatic
moment, sailing past the Statue of Liberty and
``breathing free." We overlook the less romantic
reality. So we are offended when immigrants do not
live up to our ill-informed expectations.
We need to recognize that immigrants tend to be
ambivalent about leaving their homelands and loved
ones, and aren't always eager to commit to becoming
part of US society. But we should not be surprised or
insulted by this. Instead, we should help immigrants
clarify the difficult choices they face by making
clearer to them -- and to ourselves -- what we expect
of them. President Bush's ill-fated guest worker
proposal, which promised to make it easier for
Mexicans to move back and forth across the border
legally, would have done the opposite.
We can start by ending the arguments over bilingual
education and bilingual ballots, and get serious about
making sure immigrants learn English. Right now,
English-instruction programs are poorly conceived,
insufficiently attentive to new technologies, and
inadequately funded. But once we put our money where
our mouths are and invest in such programs, we could
in return expect more of those enrolled in them.
Participants would commit not only to learning
English, but also to making sure their kids stay in
school and perhaps to starting the naturalization
Such a bargain
with immigrants could take many forms.
But it can only begin once we get past the romantic
symbols of our immigrant past and face up to the real
choices ahead of us. Otherwise we will remain caught
up in this elaborate dance -- between immigrants who
are not sure that they want to be here and Americans
who are not sure they want them to stay.
Peter Skerry, a
professor of political science at
Boston College, is currently a visiting scholar at the
Russell Sage Foundation. This column is adapted from a
piece that appeared in Wilson Quarterly.