Thursday, December 15, 2005
During the early years of the United Farm Workers Union, Cesar Chavez—the UFW’s beloved co-founder—would often call the US Border Patrol. His purpose: to have undocumented Mexican workers laboring in the fields caught and deported.
At that time, many undocumented farm laborers were so-called “scabs,” bussed in from Mexico by growers to help break labor strikes initiated by UFW members. By all accounts, Chavez, born in Arizona, was acting in the best interest of his members, and had the scabs deported for the good of la causa.
Many in the US today are attempting to do the same thing Chavez tried to do. They want to expel the country’s record number of undocumented laborers because they feel it’s in the best interest of the country. That’s not an outrageous thing. Even Mexico, which promotes the emigration of its citizens to the US, quietly cracks down against undocumented immigrants from Central and South America at its southern border. Anti-immigration activists are not necessarily racists.
What is wrong with the immigration dialogue in this country, however, are the numerous falsehoods floating about regarding the impacts of immigration. These falsehoods impede any solution to the problems surrounding illegal immigration.
One of these lies is repeated time and again by the pundit Patrick Buchanan. While he’s hardly an example of mainstream American thought, Buchanan was one of the first national figures to hammer away at massive illegal immigration, and his views have found an audience.
In a recent column, Buchanan implied that undocumented Mexican immigrants pose a threat because “most Mexicans” feel that the Southwestern US, which until 1848 was part of Mexico, belongs to them by right. This claim is simply outrageous. The last thing most Mexican immigrants would ever want is a Mexican takeover of any portion of the US. While they love Mexico, Mexicans in the US are generally happy to be free from their mother country’s widespread corruption, and the arbitrariness with which government officials treat those who are poor and have no powerful connections. For many, that’s why they left.
Another myth is that the descendants of Latino immigrants are creating a Third World within America—a view expressed in a letter published in these pages last week. The truth is that no evidence exists that the offspring of Latino immigrants aren’t assimilating to US norms and steadily moving up the economic ladder. To say otherwise is to blatantly ignore study after study which show that second-generation immigrants are bilingual, and that third-generation Latinos speak almost exclusively English. And it’s not just about language. Immigrant descendants’ values, outlook and even how they view familial relationships change dramatically the longer they live in this country.
I know this is true because I’ve lived it. My mother immigrated illegally from Mexico in the early 1960s, while my father arrived legally from Peru at about the same time.
My mother, who lives in Los Angeles, speaks mostly Spanish, while my sisters and I are perfectly bilingual. My first niece, however, is 19 years old and speaks not a word of Spanish. And I have no doubt that my nephew, who is 1 year old and growing up in a suburb of Chicago, won’t speak any Spanish either.
This pattern of assimilation flies in the face of much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric. But untruths are also repeated by many pro-immigrant activists.
These well-meaning folks often say that most Latinos favor equal rights for undocumented immigrants. That simply isn’t the case. One survey released by the Pew Hispanic Center in August shows that 60 percent of US-born Latinos oppose allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. An even bigger surprise is that almost 30 percent of Latinos who are themselves immigrants oppose driver’s licenses for illegal workers.
While most people are today focused on immigration, there is another overlooked problem with the US Latino population—which now numbers 40 million, or 13.7 percent of the populace: Latino youth are not doing nearly as well academically as white or Asian students. Only a handful graduate from a college or university, while 46 percent don’t graduate from high school. That’s a drop-out rate well above the national average of 25 percent.
Several theories exist as to why this is the case. But the root causes for Latino youth’s sub-par academic performance remain largely unclear.
Today’s immigration debate is, at its core, a dialogue about what kind of nation the US is and wants to be in the future. The ongoing dialogue over immigration now taking place is long overdue and it is the best hope for arriving at a national consensus—but only if it rises above untruths and faces up to the issues around immigration directly and honestly.
EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS PIECE, AND THE PREVIOUS TWO PARTS OF THE WEEKLY’S SERIES ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION, ARE AVAILABLE IN BOTH ENGLISH AND SPANISH ON THIS WEBSTE.